Okkervil River

Nostalgia is a warm, fuzzy place. It’s hanging out with your childhood friends on your stoop, swimming in the lake in the summer, falling in love for the first time as a teenager.

It’s also a craven, fleeting feeling — a way to escape the messiness and imperfections of the present in favor of a stilted reality that exists only in one’s imagination.

Those contrasting dichotomies are what Will Sheff — the creative force behind Okkervil River — has been grappling with over the course of his past two albums. In 2013, he released The Silver Gymnasium, a wistful, cherubic journey through his childhood in New Hampshire. Okkervil River’s latest album, this year’s boundless, bold, and iconoclastic Away, is a look at the failures, disappointments and moments of great beauty that permeate the unpredictable present-day.

The Silver Gymnasium — which I’m tremendously proud of — is like this happy record, but it comes in a certain level from a bad place,” said the 38-year-old Sheff, who will perform with Okkervil River at The Independent on October 5. “This is something I’ve dealt a lot with in the past — something makes me sad, and I try to exorcise that, and the bigger the demon, the more elaborate the exorcism. Nostalgia became a really big demon to me — it’s a flight from the presence around us mdash; and making The Silver Gymnasium  was my effort to exorcise that, which I think did. I felt like, at the end of all that, I was ready to deal with the present.”

Away is Sheff’s most prescient album — a recording bravely confronting the incongruities and lack of resolution that is life. The album was made with an entirely different band from the group that constituted The Silver Gymnasium recordings, as Sheff opted to completely rebuild his creative vehicle. When the new album was announced back in May, Sheff accompanied it with a mini-manifesto, explaining that it was made during a time of great transition and confusion for him. Former members of his band had moved away, he lost relationships with music industry types, and he was shuffling between homes.

As a result, Away is unlike anything Okkervil River has ever made. Always a cerebral, brainy songwriter, Sheff surrendered control on the album, filling it with songs that feel stream-of-consciousness and boundless, and adhere to few of pop music’s tropes or ideologies.

Songs like “Frontman in Heaven” and “Days Spent Floating in the Half-Between,” are almost Dadaist creations, free from verse-chorus-verse restrictions. Sheff said he tried to make the album as unfiltered and exposed as possible, avoiding his usual tendencies and instincts whenever he could.

“It was almost like I was trying to drill a hole in my head, so I could just plug an XLR cable straight to my brain,” said Sheff. “I wanted to short-circuit my meticulous, careful shaping of things, in the hopes of finding something that was coming through completely unmediated.”

Songs meander through different tempos and tones on the album, which has a jazzy, ethereal feel and sense. The most obvious precursor would be Van Morrison’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks, but Sheff said he was more inspired by the Irish singer-songwriter’s less-memorable endeavors from the ’80s.

“I thought a lot about Van from that era when I was making this album,” said Sheff, who added that he was also influenced by ’60s psych-folk group, The Incredible String Band. “He (Morrison) was in his late 30s, which is the same age I am now, and he was on this kind of spiritual quest, and going to all these gurus, and looking up all this esoteric stuff. He wasn’t at his absolute peak, but he was making this glorious, new-age, soft-rock, kind of healing music.”

That kind of fearlessness is a touchstone of Away. The album has picturesque, lilting songs, like “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke,” a moving tribute to Sheff’s late grandfather, and “Call Yourself Renee,” a gossamer-thin folk tune that recalls the gorgeous tenor of ’70s songwriters Tim Buckley and Nick Drake. Much like life, though, Away has peaks and valleys. “Okkervil River R.I.P.” is a tale of loss and despondency, and “The Industry,” is an angry, accusatory effort.

Sheff doesn’t shrink back from the ugliness and pettiness that can afflict humans. Those shortcomings, however, are just part of the wonderful struggles of existence. Finding a common cause with others, despite our myriad differences, is what makes life all the more satisfying. It’s a sentiment that’s hard to embrace when we’re surrounded by the ancillary white noise that fills the present.

“We need to accept that what we have is what we have, and we might lose sometimes, and things come and go, and things come to die,” said Sheff. “Not to sound too ‘Age of Aquarius’ or anything, but empathy and love are the things that are going to save the human race. Looking at how hurt, and in need, and beautiful and scared everyone is can be a scary proposition. But the present is all we have, and there is a lot of joy and bliss and comfort and beauty here. We just don’t let ourselves see that because we get too fixated on something else.”

Okkervil River, Landlady, Jon Gunton
The Independent
October 5, 2016
8pm, SOLD OUT (21+)