Austin’s Okkervil River has never been afraid to wallow, either in its misery or in its happiness. Since its debut LP in 2002, the band has used impassioned vocals, big and bountiful guitar melodies and well-placed cymbal smashes to make us feel the music. It’s like an emo brain trapped in a less whiny, more talented, folk-rock body. But on I Am Very Far, the band’s first since 2008’s The Stand Ins, Okkervil drops some of the epic torment, often transferred by frontman Will Sheff, picks up some instrumental polish and scales back the dramatics with tamer vocals.
This new-found cool emerges early on “Piratess,” the second track on the album. The electronic slinkiness and dance-floor rhythm are odd but inoffensive surprises. These return later on “Your Past Life As A Blast,” though the beat is more subdued and better incorporated into the band’s traditional sound. Changes come again on “White Shadow Waltz,” which puts Sheff’s voice through a modestly echoing filter that distances him from the stretches of repeated keyboard and guitar patterns running beneath it. The song also shows restraint, as it holds in its most explosive choral punctuation for the three-minute marker. Though even when that moment arrives, it isn’t grand enough to resolve the tension, which might’ve required a “Man In The Mirror” key change for resolution.
But these new directions, and temporary lags, come sandwiched in between songs that align with the old Okkervil. “Rider” gives that upbeat, driving, anthemic sound that this band is so skilled at creating without turning corny, and strings glide alongside Sheff’s voice on “Wake And Be Fine,” softening his delivery without stifling it. “We Need A Myth” starts quietly with Sheff’s voice accompanied by quickly bowed, humming string instruments and swipes of piano. Guitars, drums and bass then overtake the classical, but all unite in the end as the track opens onto a vocally unleashed Sheff and delivers on that tension build. This album isn’t going to isolate fans of Okkervil’s older material, but it is going to require an acceptance that change has arrived. And when it’s coming at so gradual a pace, it’s something listeners will be able to handle—and enjoy.