Upon releasing Black Sheep Boy in 2005, Okkervil River was graced with enough glowing press that they seemed poised to break through to that much-sought-after level of indie-rock success achieved by bands like the Shins and Bright Eyes, even having Lou Reed cite them as one of his favorite young bands in an MTV interview, famously (in my mind) mispronouncing their name. It was an odd turn of events, as the record was by far the most uneven they’d ever released, boasting a couple undeniable gems and a handful of go-nowhere throwaways. Even so, thanks to all that across-the-board adulation, they’ve got everyone’s attention as they get set to release their fourth full-length, The Stage Names, and this time they’ll be completely deserving of every bit of praise they get — it’s the best record they’ve ever made.
Led by frontman Will Sheff, Okkervil River started out as what was essentially an alt-country band, albeit one that was prone to purposefully sloppy recordings and arrangements and rambunctious outbursts of screaming, forever endearing them to the indie kids. They’ve changed directions over the past few years, first allowing Sheff’s Motown and 60s soul influences to shine through, leading to their excellent sophomore record, Down the River of Golden Dreams. And now, on Stage Names,? we see the band flirt briefly with a sound that one could almost say is reminiscent of the Strokes (‘Unless It’s Kicks’, ‘A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene’) before quickly settling into a pleasant mixture of all the styles they’ve experimented with in the past. In terms of instrumentation and each member’s contributions, they seem more confident than they ever have before, leaving the door open for Sheff to put forth his most accomplished set of lyrics yet.
Long obsessed with the idea of the story-song, Sheff has occasionally seemed out of his element, taking on topics (murder, drug addiction) he seemed ill-equipped to handle. But on this current batch of songs, he’s found his stride, sharing stories of the fucked-up confused girls in ‘A Girl in Port’, and the desperate, wide-eyed? ghost of a music fan in ‘Unless It’s Kicks’, about whom he says, “I want to tell her, ‘your love isn’t lost’, say ‘my heart is still crossed’, scream ‘you’re so wonderful’” In this touching, spot-on portrayal of messed-up kids, there’s a subtle similarity to the Hold Steady, played out even more on the song ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’ about John Berryman, the poet who committed suicide by jumping into the Mississippi River, and about whom the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wrote in ‘Stuck Between Stations’, “He was drunk and exhausted, but he was critically acclaimed and respected.”
The band seems to be peaking in a number of different ways here: conceptually, meaning that they’ve finally figured out exactly what they want to be; musically, meaning band members’ roles seem clearly defined; and lyrically, with Sheff finally finding his place among music’s most gifted writers. Now, if someone can just tell Lou Reed how to pronounce their name, they’ll be golden.