(ATO Records, out Fri 27 Apr 2018)
At 41, Will Sheff has achieved more than many musicians do in their whole lifetime. As a founding and sole surviving member of Okkervil River, the singer-songwriter has penned nine albums for the band, as well as creating a handful of EPs and making significant contributions towards other projects such as Shearwater. Like the majority of his oeuvre, latest effort In the Rainbow Rain is a whimsical, endearing record which combines soft-edged melodies with deft storytelling and much anecdotal input.
Coming hot on the heels of 2016’s Away and prompted primarily by the US election results of the same year, the album is also influenced by Sheff’s newly found interest in the Quaker movement, upheaval of the band line-up and other personal flotsam and jetsam. His intentions are signalled from the get-go with the ballad number Famous Tracheotomies; after disclosing his own brush with the procedure in infancy, Sheff lists other famous people who’ve undergone it. In an illuminating interview with Consequence of Sound, he confesses the effort he put into ensuring all of the details in the song were true to life, making for an educational and entertaining start to proceedings.
That format is a blueprint for the album and perhaps for Sheff’s work in general; blend the individual and the communal together to reach out to the listener, trigger nostalgic memories in their mind and thereby establish a sense of sonic comfort in the process. As he himself confesses, “In places, the record deals with heavy things like trauma and betrayal and shame, but, actually, it’s supposed to be a good time. I hope it’s something fun, that makes people feel happier.”
That sounds like a fair description for Okkervil River’s entire canon, and it’s here again in abundant evidence on Family Song, Shelter Song and Human Being Song (don’t worry, the titles aren’t all this prosaic – it’s an unfortunate coincidence of choice). Love Somebody is one of the poppier numbers dealing with the vulnerability and interdependence of falling in love, while The Dream and the Light and Don’t Move Back to LA reflect Sheff’s disillusionment with developments both personal and political in the States at the time of writing.
Pulled Up the Ribbon is one of the more energetic tracks on the album with reverbing guitars and a more determined progression than elsewhere. External Actor is perhaps the most notable for lyricism; all homonyms and alliteration, it’s an oscillating Fosbury Flop of a song (though that metaphor’s not intended to invoke traditional connotations of the word flop). How It Is is an interesting experiment in marrying folk and dance together with a dubious amount of success, while album closer Human Being Song is a bittersweet dirge on the nature of being human.
Okkervil River are remarkable in their knack of knocking out at least one or two showstoppers on every album, from Red, Westfall and Okkervil River Song on their debut LP to For Real and Black on Black Sheep Boy to Lost Coastlines and Starry Stairs on The Stand Ins. At the same time, they’re also often guilty of as many filler tracks on the majority of albums, too; in this respect In the Rainbow Rain is different. While it may not reach the heights of some previous efforts, it’s a fairly consistent offering across the board which is sure to keep loyal fans loyal and perhaps earn some new ones at the same time. It’s well worth a listen for the trivia and the glorious tribute to the Kinks on the opening track alone.