Okkervil River’s moody, tousled, and always out-of-breath frontman, Will Sheff, wrote an online diary in 2006 called ‘It’s Hard to Be a Human Being When You’re on Tour’. Documenting the band’s tour across the U.S. following their first major success, Black Sheep Boy, Sheff dryly described losing his computer, his girlfriend, his grandfather and plenty of dignity, all in a trip that spanned less than a month. It’s a surprisingly unromanticized account of the exhaustion and straight-up pain that comes with spending each successive night in a new city, and the constant urge to self-medicate with the cheap beer, bad weed and prescription painkillers that fans dole out for good measure. Even considering the murder ballads he’s penned, the piece is by far his most depressing. More obviously, it’s also his most real.
His band’s new record, The Stand-Ins, and its predecessor, last year’s Stage Names, have gradually seen Sheff’s songs take more of this true-life, first-person approach. Still embracing the pace and tenor of short fiction, he’s stopped looking to folk tales and obscure one-column newspaper stories for inspiration; instead, he’s found enough fertile material schlepping across the country in a van. Of course, these songs are romanticized, if sometimes fictionalized accounts. The bouncy ‘Lost Coastlines’ is about a group of novice sailors out to sea, though their sentiments probably reflect those of most bands losing their bearings after daily 12-hour drives: “Though we have lost our way, nobody’s gonna say it outright.” It’s a clever way of dodging a whiny tone while still channeling all the road-bound frustration that’s clearly defined Sheff’s life since Okkervil River achieved a moderate level of fame — one that forces them to tour constantly, but never saves them from having to lead regular lives the way the rockstar myth would have people believe.
Sheff’s found a new level of truth in his writing that, while remarkably present in past songs about made-up characters, hits even harder when his topic is the passion of a music-loving band and its fans. He even deliberates it in ‘Pop Lie’, a perfect pop song about the inherent fraudulence of crafting — and for the fans, losing one’s shit to — of course, the perfect pop song. Simultaneously channeling and arguing against the Hold Steady’s gloriously obvious classic-rock steez, Sheff rails on the songwriter, the guy the fans “had wrecked their hearts upon, the liar who lied in his pop song.” But it’s followed by ‘On Tour With Zykos’, which captures the slow motions of the now exhausted performer coming off a tour and a break-up, expecting to be inspired by both but struggling to feel anything at all. In the end, though, Sheff finally finds a sympathetic character in ‘Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979’, channeling the obscure, real-life glam rocker who, before dying of AIDS at 36, fell victim to the worst antagonism the music industry had to offer.
On the Stage Names’ ‘Title Track’, Sheff conjured the atmosphere of “a blood-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.” Whether he was calling out the insular world of current day indie-rock or referring more broadly to the plight of any entertainment career, it’s clear he has a conscious stake in where his own band fits into the scheme. But these past two records cover more than industry hang-ups: they also betray his total obsession with performance. To watch Sheff live is to see a total showboat, one who relishes singing to a crowd that digs the ‘Pop Lie’-style singalong and makes it painfully apparent. Now, thankfully, he’s found a seemingly endless source of inspiration in this relationship to mid-level fame that’s like that of so many New Yorkers to their city: constantly feeling lost but never deigning to admit it; constantly disparaging it but far too attached to ever consider an exit.