“This is a life story, so there’s no climax / No more new territory.”
Post-Black Sheep Boy regret, or the introduction of a new conceit? Either way, Okkervil River’s latest album announces itself with a lyric of characteristic desolation. The band may have sacrificed some of the raw desperation of their last album—a large part of Black Sheep Boy‘s enduring magnetism—but instead they’ve given us an album full of treasured glimpses of fractured existence, part autobiography and part cinema.
Much has been made, over the seven or eight years the band has been around, of lead man Will Sheff’s poetry-laced lyrics. On The Stage Names, he’s showing us he can use his prodigious literary talent with an eye to album-wide (and even inter-album) context. He’s turning from some precocious kid author—a Jonathan Safran Foer—into a writer with experience to craft a masterpiece that still rings with virtuosity—to keep with the literary thing, someone like Jonathan Franzen. Sheff’s scenes are more Deadwood than Lost in Translation, almost operatic congregations of words and unexpected images. And instead of an ill-conceived quest for love, his new album toys with the conceit of following its varied subjects from the point of view of a camera, as if watched in a movie.
On “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene”, for example, “close-up cameras are showing him cry”. The unfulfilled appeal in the title of that track may be for some greater force—God or fate—that’s never found (though the almost peppy horn-and-handclap accompaniment in the chorus pull that slightly awkward Arcade Fire phenomenon of finding an anthem in a deeply depressing subject). Either way, the conceit is more successful than when it appeared in Murakami’s recent After Dark: the “this is the scene where…” construction lends itself better to a series of impressionistic images than the mundane requirements of the novel—plot, character, development.
Part of Sheff’s new statement seems to be that music—as a cohesive factor, as a meaning for life—is a valid alternative to despair. This is far more optimistic than the surface angst shrouding The Stage Names might suggest, but I’m clinging to it, perhaps as a foolish defense against all the darkness. But in their tighter embrace of more recognizable rock forms—the riff of “Unless It’s Kicks”, or the appropriation of old songs and signifiers throughout the album—Okkervil River seems to be upholding the cathartic power of rock music even as they use it to elucidate suicides, failures, resistance of love. There’s a new muscularity behind the instrumentation and there are moments of crashing dissonance, but on the whole the album is remarkably listenable. In fact, The Stage Names may be a perfect entrée point for listeners curious about this quiet Austin phenomenon.
It’s no surprise the songs themselves are almost universally high quality, and occasionally breathtaking. “John Allyn Smith Sails”, the final song, is a reinterpretation of “Sloop John B”, a fact not immediately apparent. The first two verses tell (with bittersweet confluence) of a failed suicide. But then the tempo changes, and recognition dawns: John B’s “worst trip” is enlarged to encompass a fully failed life, rarely painted with such acutely stinging beauty. The blatant revision at album’s end is a logical progression from a couple of songs on the album that, without quoting directly, place The Stage Names in the service of rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia. “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” stomps with a brass brio out of keeping with the depressive lyrical tone. Standout “Unless It’s Kicks” continues the Sheff’s eternal search for meaning over a steady rock riff: “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man / Unless it’s fiction”?
That’s why Okkervil River’s albums lend themselves so well to interpretation as a narrative continuum. Our life is not a movie, but maybe it has cinematic elements that piece together splintered images. If there’s love, it’s “a spot against the sky’s colossal gloom”. Like the National, Okkervil River impart to the listener the sense that they are privy to a vital revelation, though the immediate meaning of the words may remain a mystery. If Sheff’s characters are more fully-formed than Matt Berninger’s, they are also more cracked, tougher to get through to. On The Stage Names, the band have once again shown themselves to be expert at creating this undeniably sad and powerful indie rock. It’s one of the year’s essential albums.