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Like many musicians, Okkervil River's Will Sheff responded to the end of 2016's contentious election season by hunkering down to write songs. It'd only been a few months since Okkervil River had released Away, a somber and mournful reflection on hard transitions, from the passing of Sheff's beloved grandfather to some major turnover in the band. So he'd already been neck-deep in re-examinations of his life in the aftermath of monumental change. Here he was, staring at a fresh canvas: What to make of the world now?
At least where In The Rainbow Rain is concerned, the answer lies in a mixture of musical reinvigoration — warm, bright, surprisingly playful arrangements that amble and soothe — and a return to vivid and specific storytelling. In "Famous Tracheotomies," for example, Sheff reflects on his own early-childhood surgery, then tells the story of a few famous people (Gary Coleman, Dylan Thomas, Mary Wells, The Kinks' Ray Davies) who'd had the procedure; he even closes with a callback to the tune of Davies' classic "Waterloo Sunset."
From there, In The Rainbow Rain gets ever more limber and expansive, as if inspired by the near-death experience that kicks it off. Which, in a sense, it is: Sheff has come to see crises and crucibles as opportunities to luxuriate in life's gifts. He exudes gratitude — in "The Dream and the Light" and elsewhere — en route to the album-closing "Human Being Song," in which he expounds on the value and importance of staying alive in the world.