When Will Sheff produced former 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson's 2010 album True Love Cast Out All Evil, turning his group Okkervil River into the psych-rock pioneer's backing band, he inadvertently revolutionized his own music. Forced to think about how to best frame someone else's voice and songs, he resolved to "push my brain into places it didn't want to go." There's a long history of unsympathetic studio warlords who do this to their charges, but Sheff took this task on voluntarily, further testing his limits by producing Okkervil River's sixth — and by far most extreme album — himself.
Essentially acting as a 21st-century incarnation of rock's most notorious tyrant Phil Spector, Sheff takes a swing at that girl-group guru's Wall of Sound on dense, melodramatic anthems like "Rider," conjuring an indie-rock approximation of fellow Spector freak Bruce Springsteen during his particularly over-the-top Born to Run phase. Sheff's lyrics are similarly excessive, and often drunk on their own alliteration: "And I fly out on my silver, scissoring wings with the other sardines over cities of things mommies need." The sound, as well as the meaning, of his words is now more crucial than ever, and the new curlicues in his songwriting suit his florid arrangements like bright flowers in a garish vase.
But Sheff doesn't merely go for gusto: "Rider" is preceded by "Piratess," which slinks along on a bass-heavy groove — another diversion from the group's time-tested folk-rock core. Sheff's voice has never before seemed so distraught; it appears in close-up on some tracks, far on the horizon on others. Favoring atmosphere over hooks, I Am doesn't immediately ingratiate; many tracks, like the stately, Roxy Music-esque ballad "Lay of the Last Survivor," reveal their strengths with repeated plays. And although there are many, many guitars, they're mostly supporting players, with equal prominence given to woodwinds, strings, treated pianos, rattling percussion and many other instruments of mystery. On I Am Very Far, Sheff finds feeling in filigree.