Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
From breakups to moves to midlife crises, major change has done wonders for the creative process. For Okkervil River singer-songwriter Will Sheff, there’s no hiding the impact of transition on his new album, which goes so far as to open with a track titled “Okkervil River R.I.P.” Referencing several deaths — those of Sheff’s grandfather, three members of the R&B group The Force MDs, and singer Judee Sill — the song takes a plaintive, deliberately paced ramble through a life of wonder, regret and bad behavior, peppered with notes of hope.
Given the tumult in Sheff’s own life, it’s no surprise that he chose to examine big changes when putting together the songs on Away. The band’s entire lineup has turned over since the release of 2013’s nostalgia-drenched The Silver Gymnasium, for starters, while other industry contacts disappeared. He’d recently lost the aforementioned grandfather, his idol. Away is a rebuilding-yourself-from-the-ground-up kind of record — it even features cover art by someone other than Will Schaff, whose artwork helped define albums like Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names — and Sheff uses the occasion to take his time and let his songs breathe.
Sheff recorded Away with an assortment of his favorite musicians, including Marissa Nadler, members of yMusic and his old Okkervil River bandmate Jonathan Meiburg, with whom he formed Shearwater 15 years ago. But all together, they still keep a relatively tight focus on the singer’s many words, which unfurl in alternately cryptic, nonlinear and revealing fashion.
Given the subject matter that informs and inspires it, Away can’t help but feel mournful, but with two-thirds of its songs running past six and a half minutes, it’s also stuffed with ideas and experimentation. For Sheff’s closing statement, “Days Spent Floating (In The Halfbetween),” the singer says he spent a month transcribing the first sentence that popped into his head each day — a process that yielded thoughts on travel, death, Halloween and ways to get through life. (“You can only spend so much time, brother, as the world’s guest.”) The song ably mirrors the sort of purge that often accompanies rebirth, and it’s a testament to Sheff’s considerable gifts that it sounds as graceful and evocative as it does.
First Listen: Okkervil River, 'Away'
Artist: Okkervil River