Will Sheff, singer and songwriter for Okkervil River, is a man who sounds desperate. He sings as if he would die if he did not. His lyrics betray an immense love of the literary, and of the peculiarities and particularities of the world. The words are so precise (the man beautifully uses “averred” in one song) that one can imagine a handwritten lyric sheet, gouged and black with crossouts and writeovers.
Sleep and Wake-Up Songs is a holdover EP between Okkervil River’s nearly perfect Down the River of Golden Dreams (my favorite CD of 2003) and their slated-for-early-2005 studio record. “Holdover” is merely a term, though. What Sleep and Wake-Up Songs is is a testament to many things. It’s a testament to what a great band can do with an EP, not filling it with half-baked outtakes and live versions of songs that rarely sound as good as the studio recordings. It’s a testament to how working hard can bring inspiration which in turn can help artists to work hard (see band website for list of other projects and split EPs). And finally, it’s simply a testament to great music. There are several levels at which to listen to these songs, and the sum of them add up to a fabulous band in our midst, one that should not be ignored. One can listen to the combined fragility and power of Will Sheff’s voice, his phrasing, and how his singing both breaks and soars in all the right places. One can listen to the aforementioned literary lyrics, fascinated as much by the individual words themselves (“Drunk in your parents’ house / Junk coming out of your mouth / We were buried in the ice sculpture”) as what the strung-together words’ stories convey (confusion, loss, and a sense of place that is terribly suffocating). Or, one can just put Okkervil River on in the background and be transported by the graceful and sad melodies, noting how these little songs can sound so big. Because that is really what Okkervil River does best—they somehow take the genre of intelligent skewed pop (like the Decemberists or a myriad of Elvis Costello releases, such as Imperial Bedroom) and turn it into something large. This is arena rock for those who prefer to stay at home, make a nice meal, and catch up on their reading.
The CD starts with what sounds like an ending. “A Favor” is a song that cannot contain itself. The listener joins it mid-flight, and this is only the beginning. The lament in the song is heartbreaking—“I would be anything that you wanted me to be”—and Mr. Sheff sings it with abandon. The band chases the song down, as it impossibly grows and grows, finally crashing into the actual ending, which is more like a lyrical and musical train wreck, while you watch bodies drift up to the sky. “You’re Untied Again” sounds like so much hope foolishly pursued, like if you took the saddest, softest Tom Waits song you could find and had it reworked by Randy Newman. “And I Have Seen the World of Dreams” shows off another of Will Sheff’s talents, that of mixing the poetry of the surreal with the ordinariness of the everyday. “I’ll sink beneath a weight of dreams / So full and complete that I’m pushed from my name” is soon followed by “Then we load up the car / And drive far to some street / Where a new life awaits”. The song also lives up to its name by sounding like something one would hear on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness. “Just Give Me Time” ambles along in a campfire folksong style, sung by the quiet guy who can play an alarming number of Beatles songs on his beat-up guitar. The last song on the EP, “No Hidden Track”, picks up the pace a bit and, while signaling the end of the EP, also points to the need for the studio record to come out as soon as possible.
Okkervil River give popular music a leg to stand on. They make it matter. Especially as year-end lists arrive and music lovers purchase much-touted releases that turn out to be disappointments or just somewhat clever, fleeting moments captured to tape, the continued standing of this relatively young band is a reason to keep traveling on the music quest. This EP is only five songs, yes, but these are five songs that can make you justify all of your searching.