It’s a bit difficult for me to articulate why I think Okkervil River are so special. It’s not just Will Sheff’s enigmatically playful lyrics; nor is it merely the impressive lability of his vocals’ emotional articulation (bounding from aching loneliness to triumph to dismissal to desolation). No, it’s got to do with something Sheff said to radio personality Richard Kingsmill in an interview on Australian radio. He was talking about how the latest album, The Stage Names, was informed by the myriad referents that make up the fabric of our everyday conversations, the language of our increasingly complex cultural world. Of course, you don’t need to get all the references to get something out of this new type of intertextual language (otherwise it wouldn’t be worthwhile as art). But it is integral to the contemporaneity, or, as Sheff puts it, the modernity, of The Stage Names.
It is in this way that Okkervil River has become part of the growing body of hyper-referential, linked-in art that embraces, rather than explains, our individual referential universes. I’m thinking of the classical music of YouTube-collating Nico Muhly; of the sometimes-astounding associative investigations of blogs like This Recording; of collating and streamlining programs that make it all just that much easier to grab hold of pretty much any information you need. Am I the only one who finds this kind of work incredibly fascinating? I’m convinced it’s the most effective way to represent the fractured yet joyous way we accumulate knowledge in digestible packets on and off the information superhighway.
Incidentally: since we’re practicing this, take some time to listen to some clips of Muhly. Get lost in the self-referential This Recording archives. And cue up a few of these tunes as an accompaniment while you’re reading.
Which is all to say that Will Sheff and Okkervil River are a thrilling part of the ever-pushing-forward set of artists weaving together stories about our culture in all its many layers. And while of course it’s true that in the live setting the group can’t entirely recreate its new album’s sense of infinite connectivity, the group manages to not only keep but play up the playfulness that infuses songs like “The Latest Toughs” or “Plus Ones”. They did in Sydney last week, anyway.
You get a much fuller sense of Okkervil River’s pop/rock song structures when they’re presented live: with each song easily filling out to five or six minutes, the ways in which the underlying verses and choruses fit together come through clearer. Sheff often takes the songs faster than on record; this emphasizes the jaunty, upbeat aspects of songs like “Unless It’s Kicks” and “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”.
Okkervil River seem to have been burdened with fighting off label after label, the two favorites being “alt-country” and “lit rock”. Maybe the best argument against this pigeonholing is watching the band connect with an unusually diverse audience live. That’s a cinch for a group whose act has been honed through months of touring off the back of a six-month-old but still thrilling album. The band doesn’t just sing about being on the road, it lives it.
Throughout the show, upbeat versions of favourites from their last two albums buzzed with precision. Drummer Travis Nelsen held his instrument gingerly before unleashing a bounding energy in the choruses, and the group jammed a little, but never tiresomely. They are professionals, and Will Sheff is a rock star. Suddenly he says, “We’re going to play a few slow songs so we can hear your conversations better,” and the place goes completely silent: more than a few people will remember the breath-held minutes of “A Stone” and “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” that followed. The band can echo a funeral dirge, or a Civil War band, or a cacophony of noise at will. Sheff held out the line “pour yourself into me” from the epic “A Girl in Port” forever, and the cathartic response from the audience was palpable.
At the end, after the second encore, the crowd were still shouting to each other, “Evil don’t look like anything.” Although the band didn’t come back for another round, Sheff surely noted the sound of his words in other people’s mouths—more proof, as if he needed any, that his has already joined the web of voices he himself is pulling from.