Okkervil River’s Will Sheff follows up with In the Rainbow Rain

In the Rainbow RainThe problem of the 'difficult second album' is so well known it's practically a cliché.

A similar issue that's easily as common yet seems to get discussed less, is how any band follows up a phenomenal album. When you've set a career benchmark, there's a risk that anything you put out straight after will pale in comparison. It's near impossible for anybody to judge it solely on its own merits, instead, it risks being overshadowed by its predecessor.

Of course, that's a very nice pitfall for any artist to face. No musician is going to regret making an outstanding album after all. But still, the heightened expectations can't help but be intimidating.

All of these questions must have been on Will Sheff's mind when creating the new Okkervil River album In the Rainbow Rain. Because his previous album, 2016's Away was very good indeed. One of the highlights of the year, it was clever, poignant and accessible. That's a lot to live up to.

Initial signs are good with the opening track “Famous Tracheotomies”. It sees Sheff at his best as a storyteller, singing of how he underwent the procedure at the age of one. It ties that in with other famous people who've undergone tracheotomies, giving the otherwise personal track a more expansive feel.

Nothing else on In the Rainbow Rain quite matches the glory of its opener, but there are other highlights to be found on the album.

“External Actor” paints an evocative picture of youthful memories, with Sheff's talented lyricism continuing to impress. “Shelter Song” uses a canine metaphor cleverly to tell a tale of human loneliness. “Don't Move Back to L.A” comes with its own sense of whimsy that instantly appeals.

So there's certainly a lot worth checking out on In the Rainbow Rain, more than enough excellent songs to justify paying attention.

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It doesn't always work, however. There's nothing technically wrong with songs like “Love Somebody”. It's a perfectly pleasant slab of soft rock. But it just glides by with some truisms about love. It's not going to offend anybody, but neither is it a song that you'll remember a minute later.

Unfortunate though it may be, after Away, In the Rainbow Rain just feels a bit unadventurous. The previous introspection has mostly disappeared to be replaced with exuberance and shibboleths.

That's even reflected in the music. Away took real risks here, with obvious jazz and classical influences pushing Okkervil River's music to new places. Apart from the occasional gospel tinge, In the Rainbow Rain mostly sticks to its musical comfort zone of Americana and folk-rock.

And all of this is arguably a very unfair comparison to be making. To be clear, there's absolutely nothing wrong with In the Rainbow Rain. It's competent and it's solid. In fact, it's a good Okkervil River album sure to appeal to any fan of the band. And that's more than ok. It's just that Away was a brilliant album that was both an Okkervil River album and something else at the same time. It left me wanting more.

And I didn't get that from In the Rainbow Rain, aside from the aforementioned “Famous Tracheotomies”. So it's time to put that to one side and accept that one Away is more than most artists manage in their lifetimes. And it's not fair to judge In the Rainbow Rain harshly because of that. If you want skilled folk rock with regular lyrical flourishes this is an album that you should check out.

Release: 27th April 2018, ATO Records
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