First time I listen to Away I don’t get past the fourth track, ‘Comes Indiana Through the Smoke’. Such a perfectly pretty melody. I want to lie in the grass in the sun, stare at the clouds and imagine they’re the smoke through which I can see Indiana – and for all I know, Indiana is the ugliest of America’s fifty states. So that’s what I do.
Second time I listen to Away, the first time I hear all nine tracks, I am relieved. Okkervil River’s previous two albums were disappointing (with the exception of ‘Down Down the Deep River’, which remains one of the most heartbreakingly positive tracks ever, in the face of so much pain), but this is good, this is safe. Away does not so much hark back to the Will Sheff’s pop-rock hooks from The Stage Names and The Stand Ins-era as evoke the more freeflowing sound of their earlier albums such as Black Sheep Boy. He certainly hasn’t written a lullaby as gently swaying as ‘Call Yourself Renee’ since that album’s ‘A King and a Queen’.
Fourth time I listen to Away I realise the meaning of ‘Okkervil R.I.P.’, even though it’s so obvious. The band doesn’t exist anymore except in name, most of its backing members having left. “Yeah, I know / They had some great songs / Must have been a great time / So long ago”. That Sheff has instead worked with session musicians with a jazz background explains how a track like ‘Judey On a Street’ can have that Astral Weeks feel of new possibilities and eternal spring. However, the lyrics are less positive: most songs are about Sheff’s grandfather, who has passed away. Titles like ‘Frontman in Heaven’ refer to him, and through these two themes, Okkervil River becomes Sheff’s grandfather, he inspires Okkervil River. Both are dead but somehow stay alive in the music.
Sixth time I listen to Away I start to get worried. How to capture the purity of the melody, the gravity of the story, in words? I can’t. In an interview, Will Sheff talks about ‘sensitising’ the listener: “A song that aims to sensitize the listener could sensitize her to, for example, the moment she’s in when she hears it: a breeze in the air, the wind in tree branches, light hitting the sidewalk a certain way.” Lying in the grass, listening to Indiana coming through the smoke. It sounds like hippie crap, but every single song on Away feels ‘in tune’ with nature, with my surroundings, with me. As if the music makes the air in the room subtly vibrate, exactly in step with the music. (Of course, that’s what sound is. But most music doesn’t make you think of the very presence of sound as sound).
The twentieth time I listen to Away will be much, much later, when it is snowing, because there is so much music new and old to listen to every day that it’s hard to stick with something for a while. It’s a bit sad. But I know now that come that twentieth time, Away will feel like a friend returning, much like other Okkervil River albums. They’ve never been a band close to my heart, but inevitably ‘Black’ would come up on shuffle or I’d decide to play The Stage Names again, and I’d think Why don’t I listen to this all the time?
And indeed I should listen to Okkervil River more often. But it’s taken the beauty of Away to truly realise their force. This is not only their best album, it also offers a perspective on Okkervil River as a band, a kind of eulogy. Though luckily they is not dead but very much alive!
-- Caspar Jacobs, September 17, 2016