2016's Away saw Will Sheff parsing through the emotional debris left behind in the wake of a string of personal and professional hardships. It was loose, dreamy, and melancholic, but spilling over with the kind of summery, late afternoon warmth that made 2007's bleary-eyed Stage Names and 2013's nostalgia-heavy Silver Gymnasium so emotionally accessible. In the Rainbow Rain, the band's ninth long-player, is a buoyant, stylistically diverse collection of songs that signal a tonal shift away from the bucolic folk and fervent indie Americana of the past. Working with producer Shawn Everett (the War on Drugs, Alabama Shakes), Sheff has crafted his least-Okkervil River-sounding Okkervil River outing to date, employing a colorful palette of sonic hues that flirt with everything from soft rock and soul to left-field '80s synth pop and Beatlesque classic rock. Ever the erudite crooner, Sheff packs a lot of words into his songs, but where previous outings relied on fairly straightforward narrative structures, the majority of the ten-track set suggests a far more impressionistic muse. Aptly named opener "Famous Tracheotomies" is an outlier, with Sheff delivering an autobiographical tale of childhood illness framed with ancillary stories of celebrities including Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas, and Ray Davies, who have undergone the same procedure -- the song effortlessly incorporates the main melody from the Davies-penned Kinks classic "Waterloo Sunset" into its later half. Ardently optimistic and bristling with positive affirmations, gratitude looms large over the proceedings, with tracks like the breezy "Family Song" and "Shelter Song," and the downright mystical closer "Human Being Song," veering into self-help territory. That Sheff would dig his heels in and plant a flag of unity in the partisan divide that partly helped shape the album should come as no surprise, and as for the last decade or so, he's been one of indie rock's most compelling critical thinkers, but it takes a bit to become accustomed to this new, almost spiritual guise. Still, there's plenty of meat to sink your teeth into, with highlights arriving via the wildly anthemic "The Dream and the Light," the similarly grandiose "Pulled Up the Ribbon," and the aforementioned opener, but In the Rainbow Rain is a definite departure that trades the soft hedonism of the group's earlier works for something deeper and more profound.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger