Okkervil River's last proper album, 2008's The Stand-Ins, was nothing if not approachable. Top to bottom, the record was packed with sunny melodies, strummy riffs and shout-along refrains that anyone could sing. (To drive the point home, the band recruited a few friends to do just that, in a YouTube project that's almost as fun as the album itself.)
The group's latest is called I Am Very Far, and if that sounds a little remote, you don't know the half of it. From the title to the Gothic cover art to the slithery organ and gunshot snare of "The Valley," the album — out May 10 — warns listeners upfront that they're stepping into dark, unfamiliar territory.
It's a bold departure from how the group has operated so far — and in this case, "the group" means frontman Will Sheff, the only consistent member since Okkervil River formed in Austin a decade ago. Sheff's vocals are creaky, but his lyrics are dazzling; his arrangements are sloppy, but his hooks are indelible. The band's trademark has always been the union of those elements into a beautiful mess. I Am Very Far reverses that formula: The storytelling is knotty, cryptic and David Lynch-like in its ominous weirdness, while the music is so severe and precise as to be terrifying at times.
And yet it wouldn't be an Okkervil River record if it didn't reward repeat listens. Peer through the darkness and you'll find bright spots galore: the attack-and-release rhythm of "Rider," the watery piano textures of "The Rise" and the swirling orchestral swells of "We Need a Myth," all of them just sitting there behind the menace, waiting to be found. Will Sheff has never had trouble cranking out great songs. What's so engaging this time around is his willingness to take a beautiful thing and bury it. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.