Death and rebirth figured prominently on Okkervil River’s fiercely personal 2016 album Away, but on the band’s follow-up, In the Rainbow Rain, frontman Will Sheff is more inclined toward celebrating the healing power of love. It’s a somewhat disorienting shift, especially since the Austin-based singer-songwriter sounds less vulnerable, while his lyrics are long on sermonizing, a feeling heightened by the band’s use of gospel embellishments.
When Sheff engages in hyper-specific storytelling, In the Rainbow Rain is at its most stirring. The initial autobiographical focus of “Famous Tracheotomies,” in which he sings of the life-saving throat operation he received as a toddler, gives way to an exploration of the circumstances behind similar procedures that notable figures like Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, and Dylan Thomas also received. Sheff uses this fascinating, if unexpected, subject matter to touch on the fragility of the human condition in a song that’s subtly life-affirming without feeling overly sentimental. He strikes a similar balance on “External Actor,” as he rapidly delivers a stream of precise and vivid imagery while reminiscing about the “opaque-eyed knocked-out rapture” of youth.
But much of In the Rainbow Rain is content to lean on threadbare platitudes. Throughout the album, Sheff frames an overly broad idea of love—the singer name-checks brotherly, neighborly, and romantic love along with the “blanketing love of God above”—as a cure-all for life’s troubles. And at their worst, these moments are outright preachy, as on “Love Somebody,” where Sheff proclaims that “If you wanna love somebody/You gotta lose some pride.” While in the past, his songwriting has been steeped in existential dread, here Sheff rarely offers more incisive experiential commentary than when he sings, on “Human Being Song,” that “it’s hard to open up your heart.”
With the exception of “Famous Tracheotomies,” Sheff often struggles to find compelling metaphors on this album. He employs clichés about the soullessness of Tinseltown on “Don’t Move Back to L.A.” to drive home a point about the world being an intimidating place that can “chew you up and spit you out.” And with a flimsy falsetto vocal on “Shelter Song,” he overtly tugs at heartstrings by invoking the image of a shivering stray dog as a heavy-handed analogy for loneliness that can only be dispelled by human affection.
Away used jazz and classical arrangements to defy expectations of what an Okkervil River album could be, but In the Rainbow Rain finds Sheff retreating to his roots-rock comfort zone, especially on the alt-country-tinged “Don’t Move Back to L.A.” and “Pulled Up the Ribbon.” Glistening synths, sultry saxophone interludes, and ethereal choral arrangements lend some tracks added dimension, but the album remains too reliant on similar song structures that start gently and then swell in intensity. This well-worn musical approach mirrors Sheff’s reductive, hug-the-world vision of love: As he’s prone to making effusive blanket statements, the singer largely prevents himself from exploring the more complex nuances of human emotion.