September 13, 2007

Record Review: Okkervil River

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There is little I could say about Okkervil River’s The Stage Names that lead singer Will Sheff hasn’t already said in his lyrics. This time around, instead of the grand, embellished story-weaving that defined Black Sheep Boy in 2005, the lyrics are literally about being a rock ’n roll fan, with all of the intensity and borderline spiritual (sexual?) obsession that being a fan can entail.
In only nine songs, Sheff spins out themes of suicide, self-reference, pornography and getting wasted over straight up rock ’n roll riffs in a way that is somehow wildly accessible, and not cliched, but still genuinely intellectual.
It’s as if they wanted to make Guns ’n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, but couldn’t avoid looking back at themselves and thinking a little too hard about “what does it mean to be a rock ’n roll band?” This self-reflexive quality is apparent before the first note, as we find liner notes peppered with literary references (a quote from Tatyana Tolstaya’s short story Okkervil River) and lyrics assembled like a book, with songs as chapters, and verses as paragraphs.
And the lyrics deserve this treatment. Sheff never simply touches on a subject. More like an author than a songwriter, he engages deeply with the material, regardless of if that material is a simple love song, a deep mythology, or in this case, the aforementioned rock ’n roll lifestyle.
In addition, every song on this record teases the best aspects of some rock ’n roll cliché without simply falling into a copy-cat method. “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rockn’Roll Man” displays a ballsy swagger that calls to mind ZZ Top.
Album closer “John Allyn Smith Sails” takes a Beach Boys classic and makes it about poet John Berryman, framing lyrics such as “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” as an utterly tragic suicide note.
Both musically and lyrically, The Stage Names wrestles with the contradiction between the aloof, life-as-a-spectacle rockstar and the obsessive, almost pathetically involved fan.
Sheff sings to both, and the gratifyingly grating riffs of “Unless It’s Kicks” and “You Can’t Hold the Hand…” are similarly countered by moments of incredible tenderness in “Savannah Smiles” and “Title Track.” The production does an extremely impressive job pitting gorgeous string arrangements against an engaging mixture of ’50’s pop with ’70’s guts.
Whenever American musical genres have established themselves, they have included countless lyrics praising how awesome the new genre itself is (think “I Love Rock ’n Roll” or “Rapper’s Delight”).
The Stage Names suggests, however, that after long enough a genre can come full circle and tackle both the glory and the tragic underside of both the music, and just as importantly, the world that surrounds the music. Romantics like Sheff may just be looking for love, but in the end you just can’t hold the hand of a rock ’n roll man.