The oral storytelling tradition has long been tied to folk tunes, but there was an explosion in the fascination of days of yore in the early years of the 21st Century as indie rock kept its eye firmly planted on the past. Acts like The Decemberists and Iron & Wine were framing their songs through the viewpoints of a variety of ancestral narrators, rather than commenting directly on personal experience. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff found his calling in this style of songwriting, and by 2007, he had already filled three full-length studio albums with tracks that found him stepping into the shoes of another.
Following up the experimental concept album that would shine a light on the band, Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River toned down the horn section and slide guitar for a more conventional sound on The Stage Names. While this record doesn’t have the unblurred through line of its predecessor, the chapters of the album are definitely bound together.
Originally planned as a double album, fans would have to wait until the following year to hear the second half in the form of The Stand Ins. Never content to align himself to one auditory styling, it is apparent that Will Sheff is constantly being pulled from several contrasting musical directions. On The Stage Names, he has found a way to blend his influences together without ever losing his vision in the shuffle.
The record attempts to explain show business, from the vantage point of a fictional rock band. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe,” a track whose title is dripping delightfully with uncertainty, sets the scene, as it were, relating the swirl of emotion that comes with having your time and talents on display in the public eye. From the distorted background noise and eerie piano strokes to Will Sheff stretching his vocals well past his comfortable range, the track is speckled with the memories of Neutral Milk Hotel. It is a song that truly values minimalism, even though there are so many objects in motion here.
The closest thing to a traditional rock song we get from Okkervil River, “Unless It’s Kicks” pumps up both the volume and the tempo as it rapidly thrusts forward. Anyone setting out to pinpoint the meter of the lyrics would have their work cut out for them, as Sheff is constantly bending structure and language to fit the rhyme scheme that he seems to forming as he goes. The song often riffs on the songwriting process itself, being sure to outline the constant barrier between the speaker and the audience.
“A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” boasts a bouncy rhythm section and high-pitched piano twinkling, distracting from its deceptively sore subject matter. In between the blaring horns and sing-song chorus, the speaker has lost all control of his art, ashamed of what his music is being used to represent. He’s signed over his creation, only to hear it played in the background of reality shows and crime dramas, and now its message will forever be distorted: “When all fires are fanned, when we’re shucking our plans / When we’re too weak to stand on our two feet / Is there a hand to take hold of the scene?”
Switching viewpoints, “Savannah Smiles” follows the heartbreaking story of porn actress Shannon Wilsey. In a twisted, dreamlike lullaby, the inattentive listener might view this is as a peaceful song – and perhaps that is the intention. Nevertheless, it is the tale of a performer who is overwhelmed by the expectations of the industry, leading her to take her own life. As the song reaches its climax, Savannah goes from a victim (“I just cannot believe could do that to a child.”) to a tragic hero.
Clearly penned by the same playful lyricist who would go on to reference Kevin Costner’s character from Waterworld on a later album, “Plus Ones” prominently displays Will Sheff’s affection for wordplay. Even when gravely serious, he can’t help but let his charming sense of humor shine through. The title itself is a pun, with “Plus Ones” being both an allusion to backstage guests at a concert for the album’s fictional act and a remark on the addition to numerical pop songs, such as “99 Luftballons” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” It’s the sort of quirky joke most people wouldn’t even think to make.
With “A Girl in Port,” Sheff draws the parallels between life at sea and that of a touring musician, going from town to town, breaking hearts along the way. The speaker is comically hypocritical as he claims to not be “the lady killing sort” while recounting brief romantic encounters with several vulnerable women. Echoing the 1972 Looking Glass hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” it’s impossible to find sustainable love when you are always moving around. “A Girl in Port” is the longest song on the album, and it milks its lovely continual build.
For most other bands, it may seem strange for a track that takes its name from a Joni Mitchell lyric to be a blues rock romp, but with Okkervil River, it feels right at home. “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” sounds like something you might hear played by a band in a dive bar. The song follows Marie from the previous song, after she has sold her soul and realizes that he doesn’t have much to show or it. As he is belting out the final line, Will Sheff breaks to laugh at his own joke: “You’ll destroy your chance to ever get repeatedly engaged.”
A rare moment on an album that tells the stories of others, “Title Track” finds the singer turning the focus on himself. Although it does call out the name of the record in its opening line, the song goes for the generic title it would mostly likely be referred to even if had been called “The Stage Names.” With a gut-wrenching progression that expands up until the final note, this track continuously poses questions it is unable to answer: “Hear the whippoorwill? Am I breathing still?”
In his first breath of “John Allyn Smith Sails,” Will Sheff breaks the fourth wall (Can songs have fourth walls?): “By the second verse, dear friends / My head will burst, my life will end.” The speaker of the song is the late poet John Berryman, following in the album’s fixation on suicide. The chronology is blurred as we bounce around the timeline, right until the moment the speaker dies when the song slips into a variation of “Sloop John B.” This inclusion gives knew meaning to the beloved folk tune and invokes Pet Sounds, an album that clearly influenced Okkervil River.
In many ways, Will Sheff’s career feels like a continuation of Jeff Mangum’s, particularly in the way he plays with unexpected instrumentation and composes lyrics that are more akin to prose than poetry. With The Stage Names, Sheff cemented his place in the conversations normally reserved for his musical idols. The record is every bit as dense as Black Sheep Boy – arguably more so – but it still manages to make itself accessible to a wide audience. It is a rare take on the music industry that resists the temptation of succumbing to exorbitant cynicism. Instead, Okkervil River is urging us not to take anything they say too seriously.