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Review: Okkervil River, 'Away'

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.

Okkervil River, <em>Away</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Okkervil River, Away.

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.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)