Monday, October 24, 2016

Away: Pointedly Not Trying to Look Back

Away is Okkervil River's eighth full-length album, and it presents itself as a sort of new beginning for the band. Frontman Will Sheff recorded these nine tracks with a new set of musicians, and this change is reflected even in Away's artwork: William Schaff's nightmarish illustrations, featured on the cover of almost every Okkervil River release to date, have been traded for a gorgeous piece by Wisconsin-based artist Tom Uttech. His beautiful painting is filled with birds in flight, and the theme of taking wing and flying away reverberates throughout this record.

Away's first track is called Okkervil River RIP, which is a pretty strong statement right out of the gate. Before proceeding any further, Will Sheff symbolically slays and buries the band that made Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names and my personal favourite Down the River of Golden DreamsOkkervil River RIP makes it immediately, inescapably clear that Okkervil River is dead, long live Okkervil River!

Whereas 2013's The Silver Gymnasium was all about looking back - the album was named for the gym in Will Sheff's old boarding school and mostly inspired by his New Hampshire childhood - Away is an album about "pointedly not trying to look back" (as Sheff himself puts it on Call Yourself Renee). The new backing musicians and the different artwork and the recurring themes of death and disappearance and being carried away all point towards a single, adamant manifesto: the past is gone, let's go someplace new already. The album's very title could be read as an imperative - away with things past, away with this scene, away with all the expectations and assumptions that have been heaped upon Okkervil River over the years.

It can be kind of scary to hear that your favourite artists are explicitly distancing themselves from the stuff you liked about them in the first place, and I had mixed feelings when I read Away's pre-release promo bumf, which strongly encouraged listeners to consider this the beginning of a new chapter in the Okkervil River story. However, longtime OR fans will perhaps be pleased to hear that, for all of Away's insistence that it won't look back, it still spends quite a lot of time looking back. The album as a whole has a nostalgic, autumnal sound whose classic rock influences are, if anything, even more rooted in the past than the eighties-influenced pop of The Silver Gymnasium (She Would Look For Me and Mary On a Wave are blissed-out, stoned-on-the-grass jams with a '60s sorta sound, while the album's superb centrepiece Judey On a Street sounds quite a bit like Bruce Springsteen circa Born to Run).

The lyrics, too, can often be caught looking backwards instead of forwards: Comes Indiana Through the Smoke seems to focus on some kind of old, old wooden ship, while spine-tingling second single The Industry pores over the rubble of a band that broke up in acrimonious circumstances.

Even the album's title, though it initially appears to promise that we're going someplace new, can be viewed as a callback to Okkervil River's past. Kudos to Ryan Walsh from Hallelujah the Hills for spotting this:

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