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Away (ATO)


Okkervil River have been playing music consistently since 1998, which means they are roughly 65 in band years. So it's only natural that their latest record, Away, spends a lot of time reflecting on the death of "the industry."

This subject, especially as bandleader Will Sheff lays it out in "The Industry," can sound a little self-interested. "And the cheaper that the music starts to get / It's like they're trying to make us cheap along with it," Sheff sings. Yeah, why didn't Sheff become a big famous rock star? Then we wouldn't be such cheap people! Wouldn't the world be better if the tiny, special, overworked details of Sheff's life received more attention than the glitterbomb bullshit exploding out of the mainstream?! O, if only popular opinion followed critical acclaim.

But he's also right. And just because that song has been sung before doesn't mean we don't need to hear it again. And Sheff has never shied away from writing music about writing music (cf all of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, both of which were relatively commercially successful for the band). Plus: Away is about death in general, so songs about a dying industry work on thematic grounds.

About two-thirds of the songs are long, delicately arranged elegies to love or to life that variously swell into big orchestral set pieces or fizzle out, which befits the nature of its primary subject. The best of these is "Comes Indiana Through the Smoke," which shows off Sheff's trademark cascading lyric poetry and his keen melodic sense.

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The other third of the album features rollicking adventure-epics that star characters that pop off with heroic abandon. These are my favorite. Throw on "Frontman in Heaven" for the pure joy contained in a fuck-it-all line like "It's going to be a funky fresh Christmas and I don't think I can handle it / when there's so little dignity in anything," which tumbles out of Sheff's mouth in the hurried sob that's defined his vocal style over the last two decades.

There may never have been any dignity in anything, but the combination of closely and earnestly observed details and controlled recklessness on this album sounds like a working antidote to Sheff's anxiety about the molded plastic pop favored by a music biz that he can't manage to fit into. With records like this, who needs a record industry? recommended