Album Review: Okkervil River's "The Stage Names"

I like Okkervil River for the same reason that I like the Hold Steady. The two bands seem like they couldn’t be more different, but for me, it’s all in the words. It’s the way that both lyricists write songs that could pass as prose. And not just any prose – great prose, melodic, full of rhythm and rhymes where you wouldn’t expect them, alliteration popping up in strange but beautiful places. These lyricists don’t make me wish I could write songs so much as they make me wish I could write, period. Take, for example, this string of lyrics from “Unless It’s Kicks”:

“What gives this mess some grace
Unless it’s kicks, man –
Unless it’s fictions,
Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?
What hits against this chest
Unless it’s a sick man’s hand,
From some midlevel band?”

But for all their lyrical similarities, the two bands couldn’t be more different in their lyrical content. Craig Finn of the Hold Steady prefers to build everyday, inane lives into grand cinescapes, whereas Will Sheff tears at everyone’s wish to have a grand life and rips it to pieces. In “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” he proclaims, “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax,” and the song mirrors that sentiment exactly. Just as it’s building up to explode into something huge, it dissolves around itself in a mess of piano chords. Just like life – as you’re saying goodbye to someone you don’t expect to see ever again, you feel as though there should be some huge meaningful moment. But there never really is, and eventually you just have to self-consciously walk away, with countless number of things left unsaid or undone.

In addition to Sheff’s lyrics, I love his voice and how it can convey a multitude of emotions. He chuckles while singing the line “and on a seven-day high” in “Unless It’s Kicks,” but several lines later he slips into desperate howling. The solo demos CD included with the deluxe edition of the album showcases his voice even more astoundingly – with no instruments other than his guitar, it’s up to his voice to convey all the nuances of emotion that his lyrics demand. And he’s one of the few vocalists that can do this really well these days, without taking the easy (read: whiny) way out. Every time he sings a song, it sounds like he’s singing it (and you’re hearing it) for the first time, due to the sheer rawness of emotion on display.

It’s hard to pull out shining stars from this field of gems, but I like “Savannah Smiles” because it sounds almost as if it could be sung to the tune issuing from a music box or one of those jewelry boxes with a ballerina that twirls when it’s opened. Fitting for a song about a man who still wants to believe that his daughter is a child, even as he accidentally stumbles upon her diary and discovers evidence to the contrary. “Plus Ones” is a treat for music nerds, as it’s replete with musical references (100th luftballoon, 51st way to leave your lover, the 4th time you were a lady, etc.).

And then, of course, there’s the final track of the album. “John Allyn Smith Sails” is another parallel with the Hold Steady, but where Girls and Boys in America opened with a song inspired by John Barryman (nee John Allyn Smith), Okkervil River’s album ends with one. Where the Hold Steady make a cultural reference to Jack Kerouac in their song, Okkervil River give a nod to cultural icons the Beach Boys with their chilling outro of “The Sloop John B,” which sounds more like a funeral dirge than a traditional West Indies folk song. “And at the funeral, the University cried at three poems they’d present in place of a broken me,” pretty much sums up the inadequacy of so-called grand, or cinematic even, gestures.

With all this in mind, it would be easy to characterize The Stage Names as vastly depressing, but somehow it manages to sound like one of the most upbeat Okkervil River albums to date. I guess the contrast works in their favor though – there are not always love songs playing when we fall in love, and sometimes our saddest days are the days that the sun shines the brightest. It is life, after all, and not the big screen adaptation.