Okkervil River – In the Rainbow Rain

20 years into their life as a band, Okkervil River have delivered one of their best yet, up there with Black Sheep Boy, perhaps their most revered album in a career full of revered works.

Will Sheff is the only constant in a band that has always refused to sit down, to rest on their laurels, or dwell on a style or formula. With In the Rainbow Rain they are at their most eclectic, Sheff in the process finding a ‘real’ band set up that he is comfortable with, and which includes Benjamin Lazar Davis, who collaborated with Joan As Police Woman on 2016’s Let It Be You.

Seemingly able to find inspiration from anywhere and anyhow, and yet spinning it into mostly palatable, accessible narratives, Sheff and band also keep things relatively simple, if decorative for the most part, musically speaking. It’s the classic American song style of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty married to the more languid approach of a young Neil Young, along with the contemporary anthemic sound of Arcade Fire, but with a devilish amount of 80s sprinkle, in production and style. Sheff also does a fine physical impersonation of John Lennon circa 1969.

There’s the easy going West Coast musical gait of ‘Don’t Move Back to LA’, – a humorous pleading of sorts that sees Sheff sounding uncannily like The Cure’s Robert Smith – the anthemic Springsteen-esque rock, plus wailing sax, of ‘The Dream and the Light’ the electronica-infused ‘How It Is’ and the big 80s Petty-style chords of ‘Pulled up the Ribbon’. Kicking it all off is perhaps the first ever song devoted to tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that Sheff endured when a toddler, and which bedevilled him for much of his youth. Inspired to write a song about body parts, he delved back into time, whilst researching other artists and celebs who had the same issue – Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, and Ray Davies of The Kinks, going so far as to use the melody of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ on this matter-of-fact tale. Indeed, as the album title alludes to, In The Rainbow Rain is about finding that fine balance between optimism and appreciation of simply being alive with his innate pessimism. Sheff has said about the album, “In places, the record deals with trauma, betrayal and shame, but actually, it’s supposed to be a good time”. Allied to that is a measured melancholy, a gently forceful musicality, and Sheff’s voice that carries understated drama, and emotional rescue discernibly within.

Throughout, Sheff is less gloomy than he was on his previous album, Away, but his inner bleakness can’t help but leave a vapour-like trail here, despite the strangely upbeat musicality for the most part. There are a couple of bland songs that lead nowhere in particular, and which fails to gel, such as on ‘How It Is’, an unsuccessful marriage of drum pads, soul sax, and AOR. However, as on the opening ‘Famous Tracheotomies’, closing track ‘Human Being Song’ is deeply personal, with an engaging warmth via the languorous beat, gospel-style vocals, and spirited lyrics: “And I’ve got nothing smart to say / But brother, I believe in love”.

Jeff Hemmings

Website: okkervilriver.com