Okkervil River’s “Pop Lie” is a bit like one of those documentary video montages of classic moments in modern musical culture. If you close your eyes and listen closely, a parade of iconic images may play across your lids. There’s Eddie Cochran strummin’ “Summertime Blues”. Here’s the Stones on Shindig. Girl groups, go-go dancers and guitar gods are passed by prog snobs and punk yobs while AM radio bubblegum poppers, decade-defying genre-hoppers, and overblown ‘80s chart-toppers give way to cover-model pop tarts, cookie-cutter boy bands and has-been heart-throbs. All this is conveyed in a swirling sugar-rush of synthesizers and an irresistible high-energy hook.
Despite being labeled the “album version”, the Pop Lie single sounds somehow brighter than on The Stand Ins, and a lot of the little accents and shadings in the mix come through with greater clarity. Perhaps that’s simply a product of hearing the song outside of the darker aural environment of the album, where it served as something of a cynically upbeat break between two somber songs of desperation, but now it sound even more energetic. The song’s lyrics, like other lyrics from The Stand Ins and its predecessor, The Stage Names are about the misconceptions and deceptions that surround the perceptions of fame. Singer Will Sheff declares this lie that pop music perpetuates to be calculated and incorporated as:
In the back room the kids all waited
To meet the man in bright green
Who had dreamed up the dream
That they wrecked their hearts upon
The liar who lied in his pop song,
He’s the liar who lied in his pop song
And you’re lying when you sing along
With a barely hidden hint of the bitterness of a disillusioned fan forced to grow up and throw away dreams, yet also with the wearily resigned acceptance of a performer now charged with creating them, Sheff has lived the lie from both sides and implies that we are all participants in it. Some of us tune in more knowingly than others, of course, but most of us are willing, wanting, even begging to believe. And who can blame us for being complicit with the chorus Sheff has crafted here? As the song closes, Sheff names himself the liar, but when presented so perfectly, even this admission of insincerity can only add up to adulation. In fact, everything about this track seems engineered to inspire exactly the sort of devotion it derides. The “Pop Lie” is persistent.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, given the disc is credited Okkervil River, that Sheff recorded the B-side tracks of Pop Lie with few outside contributions, and without the rest of the members of the band.
“Millionaire” is an orphan of the song cycles of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, and it wanders lonely across a sweeping, cinematic, sound-scape, ambling in and out of frame, before finally slipping off into the sunset like some John Ford film. As with all the best epics, it features an expansive, open-road-and-big-sky sound. Plaintive guitars and plodding piano evoke the emptiness in excess as Sheff sings with mournful disdain of a rock god riding roughshod over women more than willing, of an entertainer playing emotional puppeteer. A glutton in the guise of guru and a hero spouting idle, scripted promises complete this contemptible cast, and it would be easy to hate these characters for their power and position, but we are reminded again of our complicity in the cult of celebrity when Sheff sings:
Just this one time I will believe him,
But I know it’s a choice.
I’m aware, but just don’t care
I sign my name, I raise my voice
And fall, disabling all alarms, overwhelmed by all his charms
Into the warm arms of another millionaire
The “One Man Band Version” of “Pop Lie” is aurally less a montage of musical touchstones than it is the soundtrack of the screen tests for an old experimental film. Up close and unforgiving, the grainy frames focus in on unfiltered flaws. Here the lie cannot hide. It’s right there in black and white. The song takes the propulsive energy and the even-though-we-know-the-truth-we’re-still-hooked enthusiasm of the other version, and turns it inside out. It’s a raw, jagged dirge, all amplifiers and effects and wounded dreamers lashing back at the lie. This arrangement takes the artificial abyss between the bands and the fans and the alternating peeks into perspectives played out between two, as well as between the The Stage Names and The Stands Ins albums, and reduces all of that to an intensely intimate, yet infinitely universal, statement about those relationships. This time when Sheff sings “This is respectfully dedicated / To the woman who concentrated / All of her love to find / She had wasted it on / The liar who lied in this song,” he’s not just speaking for the insincere idol, all lies and lip service, but for everyone who has ever believed and had their hearts broken.