Will Sheff
Photo: Bret Curry / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Will Sheff Finds Everything in ‘Nothing Special’

Okkervil River’s Will Sheff sounds like someone shrugging off burdens, his music built on steady patience and willingness for difficult but freeing reflection.

Nothing Special
Will Sheff
ATO Records
7 October 2022

“Once upon a time,” Will Sheff sings on the title track of his first solo record, Nothing Special. The Okkervil River frontman knows how to tell a story with a mythic worldview, whether through a rock opera or a concept album, or just a highly literate slanted look at the world. His latest work undermines the sort of mythic framework we can impose on our lives (or our favorite indie rock bands). Sheff sounds like someone shrugging off burdens, his music built on steady patience and a willingness for difficult but freeing reflection.

“Nothing Special” centers the LP on a potentially discouraging note. Sheff writes of the loss of his friend and former bandmate Travis Nelsen, a low point in a world committed to hurt. Looking around, he finds the challenges of being or not being “special”. Escaping stardom (even the mid-level variety he’s had) brings relief in becoming ordinary; watching a lover dismiss you because you’re nothing special feels much worse. “Special”, though, turns out to be the wrong way to approach the whole issue. That category doesn’t protect you from pain or hardship, but relinquishing the conceptual box (as when the characters in the song “agreed to give back all our gold”) offers a more straightforward and truer path.

Such considerations have misted through Sheff’s writing before, particularly on the meta-rock moments of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. Now he sounds done with the idea, properly finishing with concerns about Rock or Artist or whatever imposed identity creates strictures. Likewise, any attempt to compare this solo work to Okkervil River misses the point. Sheff’s distinct voice gives any of his projects a certain feel, but this record, created through much collaboration, sounds relaxed even if it mostly sticks to precise recording. Appearances by Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), Zac Rae (Death Cab for Cutie), Cassandra Jenkins, and more do less to heighten the celebrity impulse and more to spread a communal, low-key vibe.

With the myth done away with and the responsibilities shared, Sheff takes us through a powerful view of the world. Neither the young hero (“Estrangement Zone”) nor the noticeably gifted (“Holy Man”) can bring repair to the world. As Sheff sings in “Like the Last Time”, “Suffering irradiates infinity / Everyone’s in on the atrocity,” but we can still find meaning. On the track, he resists the idea that the horrors must repeat in the same manner, even if safety is impossible. He finishes the song with a simple imperative: “Climb”.

The euthanization of a friend’s pet partly inspired “Marathon Girl”, a spare and lovely track. If we love, we must learn to let go, but Sheff discovers that “nothing goes to waste”. Life can find its most profound moments in taking a walk with a dog; releasing ideas of the epic makes way for the great. As Sheff observes on the following track, “Anything is full of everything.” He has some suspicions about the transcendent even as he embraces it. Near the album’s start, Sheff said he was “no wiser now than I was”, but he accumulates wisdom in a subtle outlook on a world and a life “burnished by beautiful loss”. He sounds at peace, now in resignation or withdrawal, but in the embrace of everything that’s nothing special.

RATING 7 / 10