Interviewing Okkervil River’s Will Sheff was a difficult task—not because the Austin, Texas–based band’s leader was anything other than frank and cordial, but because I didn’t have a clue as to what its new album, I Am Very Far, was about.
I still don’t, but Sheff did a fantastic job of explaining my confusion.
Reached on the band’s tour bus, en route to Buffalo, New York, he reveals that I Am Very Far is a concept album of sorts, and that it does have an overarching narrative. But, he adds, that narrative is told in code, almost as if to resist interpretation.
“I feel that the best things are the things that retain some kind of mysterious wholeness instead of being very easily dissectible,” he says. “I mean, in the past we made it overly easy, I think, for the thematic elements to get dissected and talked about, and what I started to regret about that was that the wholeness got leached out a little bit. There was not as much of a mysterious, indivisible quality. And I wanted, more than anything, to retain that on this record. I wanted to feel that it was whole, and that it has a certain mystery when it’s taken altogether.”
Sheff and company can take pride in fulfilling their mandate. I Am Very Far is a delightful enigma, and a record that’s well worth puzzling over. Sonically rich and musically spirited, it offers a maze of clues and possibilities for the active listener to traverse. Among other things, it might be about the love of siblings, an atheist’s search for something to believe in, one individual’s slow path to adulthood, or even the corrosive effects of the road, although Sheff discounts that last interpretation.
“I really like that it could potentially mean five different things, and it could mean them all at the same time,” he says. “Or that you could come back to it and you’d hear something different in it every time. I feel that a lot with my favourite works. I’ve thought a lot about a [Mark] Rothko painting. That was an image that I had in my head as I was making this record. Nobody can really tell you what a Rothko painting means, but if you’re standing in front of it you really feel what it is. And that was sort of my goal.”
Sheff allows that the new disc took much of its inspiration from legendary Texas psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson, with whom Okkervil River made last year’s powerful True Love Cast Out All Evil.
“Roky has such a vibrant and rich inner world, and he accesses it so easily,” the songwriter explains. “And I realized from working with him that everybody has that inner world; it’s just a matter of learning to access it.”
This, Sheff seems to have done. And given that no one really knows what Erickson classics like “Two-Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” or “Fire Engine” are about, he’s obviously in good company.
Okkervil River plays the Vogue Theatre on Monday (June 20).