Ambition has never been in short supply where Okkervil River are concerned. Band leader Will Sheff has found inspiration in all manner of seemingly unrelated subjects, from the struggle with substance abuse that plagued Tim Hardin to the recollections and relationships nurtured in the tiny New Hampshire hometown where he was raised.
With Sheff and his colleagues rarely appearing unwilling to take a wholly inward glance, the band’s emphasis on illuminating melodies is a constant, even though the music’s been occasionally tempered somewhat by evocative emotion and winsome reflection. In The Rainbow Rain offers plenty of both, with songs such as “Human Being Song,” “Love Somebody,” “Family Song” and “Famous Tracheotomies” being especially striking in that regard.
The band doesn’t limit its exultation to those mellower moments. Virtually every song seems to soar, and whether the tempos are paced at an easy lope (“Don’t Move Back to LA”), a kinetic flourish (“The Dream and the Light”) or something akin to an electronica infusion (“How It Is”), the buoyant energy and absolute exuberance providing a sense of celebration. The band appear determined to create an anthemic embrace, what with the massed choruses, infusion of brass and strings and a fully committed delivery.
There’s a steady split between a ying and yang; on the one hand, there’s the looming clouds of trauma and turmoil, while on the other, emotional uplift. Sheff’s arched vocals and distinctive croon lend a heightened sense of drama and rumination, but it’s also that he’s aiming for inclusivity. One could easily imagine Sheff at center stage, acting as cheerleader and encouraging the crowd to sing along in celebration.
Indeed, if Okkervil River had any prior thoughts about expounding upon populist precepts, In the Rainbow Rain finds them paying further heed to that notion throughout. An album that echoes the pull of modern pop, it’s rousing, revelatory, dynamic and demonstrative without negating any sort of bigger theme. “If you gotta love somebody, you’ve got to lose some pride,” Sheff emphatically declares on the aforementioned “Love Somebody,” one of several songs determined to leave a life lesson in their wake. Consider this effort an astute example of passion with purpose.