Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
Okkervil River’s eighth album, Away, was born of personal tragedies and upheavals; as frontman/mastermind Will Sheff suggests, it’s scarcely even an Okkervil River album at all. Most of the band quit or were fired (although drummer Cully Symington and longtime collaborator Jonathan Meiburg both play on the record), part of a series of winnowings that Sheff appears to have undergone in the last few years. Most notably, his grandfather (T. Holmes “Bud” Moore) died in hospice at age 94, and Sheff spent much of his last few months near him. His ghost haunts the record. “Okkervil River R.I.P.” contrasts his death with those of the members of 1980s R&B group the Force MDs, as well as singer/songwriter Judee Sill’s. And “Comes Indiana through the Smoke,” maybe the most straightforward lyric Sheff’s ever written, features the titular battleship, on which Moore served as a young man, coming to take him into the afterlife.
The rebirth signaled by Away certainly requires the death of Will Sheff’s previous artistic persona.In some ways, then, Away is a record of Sheff’s kenosis, the Greek term referred to in Philippians 2:7 that suggests a self-emptying. In about half the songs, Sheff or one of his characters loses something essential to him: family members, friends, careers, hope, dignity. And yet this is not a depressing album. In places it’s utterly joyous, as joyous as Okkervil River has ever been. That’s because, like so many self-emptyings, Sheff’s is accomplished so that he can be filled again. In this sense, Away is only half-appropriate as a title; it could just as easily be called Back, because this is an album full of returns and even (though I hate to sound cliché) redemption.
But the word applies. In an interview, Sheff explains that the album is partially a response to his own religious inquiries. He was raised Catholic but left the Church after high school—only to feel that he was missing something:
Eventually, I had this moment where I was like, “I want a deeper relationship with that God, that big, big thing that I know there.” And I feel like “spiritual” rather than “‘religious” is not cutting it. . . . I thought, why not just come back to Christianity? I don’t have to believe anything I don’t want to. I can have my complete own version of it that might be considered heretical or whatever.
I’m certainly not going to do anything so foolish as to try to piece together the doctrines of Sheff’s “radical, ecstatic, esoteric Christianity,” but it is clear from even a cursory listening of Away that this record is God-haunted, and not by the sort of absent God that haunts so much contemporary art. “The Sky Man,” as Sheff calls Him in “Frontman in Heaven,” is frequently hiding just outside the reaches of the visible world, and the divine presence is often signaled by the classical music ensemble yMusic, whose strings and horns seem to pop up any time an ultimate mystery is at hand.
Take, for example, the almost unbearable beauty of “Call Yourself Renee,” which builds to an instrumental crescendo long before Sheff can tell the story of a woman who moves back to her hometown and changes the name she’s apparently already changed once. She’s “try[ing] for a grace of some kind,” and the instrumentation grants it to her. It’s no wonder that, by the end of the song, Sheff can say, “I’m not scared to die as long as I know that the universe has something really to do with me”—the music assures us that it does. Here the folk instruments—Sheff’s delicately strummed acoustic guitar, a fretless bass, sparse piano notes—are the physical world, and the orchestral instruments are the divinity that suffuses and pokes through it.
The strings pulse, too, underneath “Judey on a Street,” whose title character “want[s] to get involved with prayer”; her boyfriend, the narrator, ends up having a religious experience in “a church with a shield on the sign” before seeing a vision of the afterlife. To leave, on this record, is always to return, and to return always has theological significance—witness the aching beauty of the love song “She Would Look for Me,” the she of which can’t be only human, especially given the song’s placement just before the Theotokion “Mary on a Wave.” Even “Okkervil River R.I.P.” ends with a rebirth, as Sheff hears a cover band at an ice-skating rink and remembers why music means something to him. (Appropriately, most of the backing for this final verse is provided by yMusic, as if they were accomplishing the resurrection suggested by the lyrics.)
Sheff’s lyrics have always been artificial, in the old sense of the term; they are intricately crafted, tightly controlled. Furthermore, they are a particularly postmodern kind of artificial. The 2007 song “Plus Ones,” for example, takes as its central gag the adding of one to famous songs with numbers in the title, but a “plus one” is also a term for someone who comes to a concert for free, thus tying the song end with the endlessly self-referential album on which it appears, The Stage Names. To top it off, the song is also a moving account of a breakup.
The lyrics on Away, however, steer away from artifice and into naturalness. Sheff has said, in fact, that this album was “the easiest and most natural I’ve ever made” and that he “felt guided by intuition.” That doesn’t surprise me—the songs seem to come at their own pace, led by the sound as much as by the words. There’s an easiness to Away that I don’t associate with Okkervil River’s previous work (almost all of which I have enjoyed, incidentally). Rather than controlling the lyrics, Sheff seems to be allowing them to control him. This approach is most notable in the final song, “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween),” which was composed via a kind of automatic writing wherein Sheff spent a month writing down the first sentence that came to his mind when he woke up. It’s as religious as everything else on Away, even if its meaning appropriately dances right out of reach.
The rebirth signaled by Away certainly requires the death of Will Sheff’s previous artistic persona, and I am sad in some ways to see it go. But this album is remarkable—beautiful and religious in the best sense of that word—and the world is better off for the kenosis he had to undergo to produce it. In “The Industry,” he wonders aloud,
Do you remember, baby, back in ’95
When some record was enough to make you raise your fist?
When some singer’d make you sure that you exist?
Well, I never thought I’d feel like that again
He had to “let it go,” he tells us—but Away demonstrates the degree to which he recovered it. And I am certain that this record will make many of its listeners sure that they exist.
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