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Okkervil River - In the Rainbow Rain Music Album Reviews

Okkervil River - In the Rainbow Rain Music Album Reviews
Will Sheff makes kindness an aesthetic on this album of gentle, idiosyncratic songs about dog adoption, celebrities’ emergency tracheotomies and finding transcendence in nature.

Will Sheff walks into a bar. Let’s say it’s your local and there’s an empty stool beside you. The past couple of years have sheared nerves and petrified muscles; bad news passes through you both, like radio waves, at all times. But Sheff has some wisdom to offer you. So, do you want to hear that you gotta lose a little pride to love somebody, that we probably won’t ever have all the answers? Or would you rather learn about a bunch of celebrities’ emergency respiratory surgeries?

Sheff takes both tacks on In the Rainbow Rain, Okkervil River’s ninth album. It’s telling, though, that “Famous Tracheotomies” is the icebreaker. The track is an ideal reminder of his talents: his surefooted navigation of jagged cadences, his obituarist’s judicious sense of detail, his reverent rifling of cultural back pages. (The final tracheotomy detailed is Ray Davies’, which allows the band to vamp on the chorus to “Waterloo Sunset.”) Even though Sheff leads with his own story—he had a tracheotomy before turning two—there’s nothing mawkish about the song. Layering soft-rock melodies over gospel backing vocals, it’s an alternately tender and stark inventory of frailty that demonstrates how mortality snaps everyone to attention.

“I wanted to make a record where a sense of kindness felt encoded into the music,” Sheff has said. And he has. The current iteration of Okkervil River, composed of Sheff’s touring band for 2016’s Away, casts the songs in warm, dusky light. The album’s sound is confident yet gentle, like the War on Drugs’ tricked-out AOR engine powering a languid Sunday drive. For his part, Sheff avoids the vocal exhibitionism that goosed previous albums. Sometimes you have to lean in to catch the takeaway—but that careful attention is too often rewarded with platitudes. He adopts a beatific, drunken burble on the twinkling “Family Song,” which closes with a statement —“You’re alive, I’m alive”—that is life-affirming in only the most literal sense.

It’s one of three tracks that, perhaps in a callback to Okkervil River’s early releases, have “song” in their titles. The best of these is the dog adoption story “Shelter Song,” which tempers the human and animal characters’ relief at finding each other with Sheff’s acknowledgment of how precarious survival can be: “I thought that nobody loved me at 10/Sad kid, scared animal/A nasty word and I’m back there again.” The drum machine pads apprehensively. At the close, bassist Benjamin Davis traces wary circles that give way to a yowling guitar solo from Will Graefe.

You can win over a dog with kindness, but sizing up people proves more difficult. On “Human Being Song,” which closes the album, Sheff is so stuck between the competing urges to embrace others (“It’s hard to be a human being/Just seeking, needing, feeling pain”) and to push them away (“It’s hard to open up your heart/And face the fact that you could fail”) that it’s up to the band to nudge him beyond this impasse, shifting from the sway of classic rock to the benediction of gospel. But, since the former genre exists to conjure the unnameable and the latter speaks the language of certainty, neither quite provides the answers Sheff seeks.

In the Rainbow Rain isn’t always this thematically dense, though, and its more laid-back songs help loosen the philosophical knots that tracks like “Human Being Song” tie. The epic “The Dream and the Light” takes the E Street Band on a nighttime limo ride straight out of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. On “Pulled Up the Ribbon,” keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti suspends synth lines from a high ceiling and Davis’ basslines nail them to the earth. “External Actor” is a backwoods trek that celebrates “moments of opaque-eyed, knocked-out rapture” and traces a line from your beer can to zodiacal light. The song may be a bro-country writing exercise under the influence of mushrooms, but it plays to Sheff’s strengths. Like the bar’s most beloved regular, he has a gift for shoving drinkers’ shared uncertainties under the stools and making old stories do new work.

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