I’m beginning to think that Will Sheff can do no wrong. After all, not only has he spearheaded three incredible albums under the Okkervil River moniker, he’s also been an integral part of bandmate Jonathan Meiburg’s Shearwater, whose Palo Santo is, pun intended, sheer musical genius. Sheff just doesn’t seem to stop. After a brilliant album in Black Sheep Boy, a stellar follow-up appendix EP / album and a single, “The President’s Dead,” that nearly dazzled as much as any of their full-lengths, Okkervil River is back again with unrestrained brilliance. The Stage Names is an album that is not only different in scope than anything in Sheff’s past, but arguably better. I am reminded of the author David Mitchell, who, with every successive book, seeks to employ a different narrative style and voice, succeeding every time beyond my expectations. After the string of Okkervil River’s successes, I was ecstatic to find that The Stage Names kept the streak alive.
“Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” is the stunning opening track and a recent live favorite. Sheff, as usual, employs the trappings of gifted fiction writing, but the song is mainly concerned with the notion that life is not film. One would think, in this age of celebrity, that all art forms could tend to blend into one. Rappers become movie stars, actors become authors, etc. The worst example I can think of in this regard is Billy Joel appearing on Inside the Actors’ Studio. Really, what was that all about? Joel has never been an actor, save for being a voice in the animated film, Oliver & Company, making him less likely a guest as SNL’s parodies featuring Charles Nelson Reilly and Dustin “Screech” Diamond. I didn’t know whether to be more upset about Inside the Actors’ Studio’s constant celebrity worship or the idea that Billy Joel’s music somehow qualifies him as a transcendent performer. But I digress. My point is that Sheff has no illusions about fame, movie script endings or fantasy worlds. In fact, while Joel struggled for fame and fortune, only to be screwed over by record companies and so-called friends time and again, Sheff purposefully sought out failure, intending to be in a band that went nowhere. Back to the song, Sheff yelps his way Win Butler style through the high-flying crescendos of the tune while the backup players `hoo-hoo’ their way through the chorus like the rest of the Arcade Fire.
From that point on, Sheff begins to tell stories of being in bands. “Unless It’s Kicks” revolves around the ideas of what makes rock and roll ultimately worth the trouble, adulation and a natural (?) high. The closing Johnny Marr-like guitars are to be reveled in. “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” takes the concepts of film and writing again and makes stories within stories, to the point where you’re not quite sure which is the reality, and I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be. Handclaps and horns add a nice touch of a celebratory atmosphere to this fifties’ style track. “Savannah Smiles” is a drastic turn from the typical Okkervil River fare, being a song about his growing daughter, his regrets and a feeling of estrangement. After an album where Sheff sang of tearing open people’s throats and drinking their blood, this was unexpected. “Plus Ones” could easily have turned into a gimmick song, but in Sheff’s capable hands and words, instead becomes a work of allusory art. In the track, Sheff adds one to several songs containing a numerical value to great effect. For instance, in one verse, Sheff sings about “TVC16,” “Cell 45,” and the “51st way to leave your lover.”
“A Girl in Port” is as worthy a song of The Band that I’ve ever heard, twangy and soulful. In it, Sheff makes an analogy of sailing from port to port over lonely seas to represent past relationships, claiming that even with the three mentioned women, he’s not “sailing just for sport,” and is not “the ladykilling sort.” “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” is exactly what it sounds to be, a rollicking look at life in a band with its hollow excess and relationship destroying abilities. “Title Track” isn’t just a cheeky name, being that it does actually reference the title, “All of the stage names evaporate, and it’s just a flood-flushed and heart-rushing race either to kick off too soon or stick around too late, to be far too dear or too cut-rate.” Sweet strings are accentuated with blasting chords from the piano and staccato drum raps. “John Allyn Smith” closes out the album with a bang. The title references the real birth name of poet John Berryman, being the third time in the last year that Berryman has been name-checked by an indie band (the first two being Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Hold Steady). The song, a building and emotional piece, is a mini-bio of Berryman and what led to his suicide. Sheff ends the song by using the choruses from the Beach Boys’ magnificent “Sloop John B.” The details and imagery that Sheff uses in the track make it the most moving and accurate piece of biographical lyricism since Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”
Will Sheff intended for The Stage Names to be his `modern’ album, and in a number of ways he succeeded. Fans expecting another Black Sheep Boy should remember that if any album of Okkervil River’s was a singular and unique piece of work it was that one, intended to be a song cycle based on an old folk song. Sheff deals with broader themes in The Stage Names and manages to make every last song memorable and of a higher quality than most songs in the marketplace. Images of film, destitute bands (all too familiar to Sheff’s early musical years), and suicidal poets are all brought to bear by Sheff’s literary mind. So, maybe our lives aren’t a movie. I realized that on a day recently where I professed my desire for a particular girl and she subsequently disappeared from my life, refuting all `romantic comedy’ evidence to the contrary. But slogging it out through life is made much easier when you have an intense new soundtrack by Okkervil River.