Monday, August 13, 2007

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Okkervil River - The Stage Names

With its majestic artwork and cleverly constructed, Tim Hardin-inspired song cycle, Okkervil River’s ‘Black Sheep Boy’ was one of the best rock albums of 2005. Much like Beirut’s ‘Gulag Orkestar’, it became something of a slow-burning cult success largely through word of mouth, something that should ensure this equally impressive album gets some deserved attention.

Musically, ‘The Stage Names’ partially takes flight from where some of the crisper, edgier tracks from ‘Black Sheep Boy’ left off, particularly with the pounding, insistent double opening punch of ‘Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe’ and ‘Unless It Kicks’, both tracks building to ferocious and unrepentant climaxes. ‘A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene’ and ‘You Can’t Take The Hand Of A Rock ‘N’ Roll Man’ add an insistent, Motown-flavoured backbeat to the proceedings that works surprisingly well. The overall sound is sparer and less ornate than ‘Black Sheep Boy’, although the central focus of the album is on a series of unashamedly melodramatic ballads.

As a lyricist, Sheff rejects conventional phrasing, structure and rhyme schemes, instead favouring verbose but intelligent prose-poetry rich in ideas and imagery. Many of the adjectives that immediately spring to mind whilst listening to ‘The Stage Names’ might more likely be applied to an American novelist as the cumulative impact of these songs is vivid, imaginative, compelling, lucid and captivating. His writing can be savage (‘I want a smile like a glistening shard, I want a kiss that’s as sharp as a knife’ or, even more forcefully, ‘Marie’s passed out in a chair with her once fussed-over hair all mussed into an I’ve just been f*cked shape’) or tender and compassionate (‘Let fall your soft and swaying skirt. Let fall your shoes. Let fall your shirt. I’m not the ladykilling sort enough to hurt a girl in port’). Along with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, Will Sheff is one of the most idiosyncratic and immersing writers currently at work in American music. It again begs the question of why there are no British songwriters with such original and unique voices.

Perhaps best of all are the album’s two most direct songs, ‘Savannah Smiles’ and ‘Plus Ones’. The former describes the distance between father and daughter with sincere regret and haunting power, the song’s protagonist regretting the glimpse into his daughter’s private world through an illicit perusal of her diary. He ends up wondering ‘is she someone I don’t know at all? Is she someone I betrayed?’, concluding the song with touching but unsentimental poignancy (‘all I’m seeing is her face aged eight’). ‘Plus Ones’ dissects a failing relationship with severe acuity, as well as a truckload of rather grim irony. It begins with an earnest confession – ‘I am all out of love to mouth into your ear, and not above letting a love song disappear before it’s written’. With a sly reference to Paul Simon, Sheff sings ‘The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly, doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others, leaving its scars.’ Somehow, the song contains both bitter cynicism and real wisdom gained through experience. Both these songs capture Okkervil River at their most languid and melancholy.

Throughout, Sheff’s voice follows the intrepid contours of his words, veering from vulnerable, underplayed mumble to devastating howl. Nowhere is this more impressively delivered than on the marvellous ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’, essentially a poet’s extended suicide note, musing on failure and disappointment. It concludes with a brutal refashioning of ‘Sloop John B’, a move that in lesser hands would result in disaster, but here has a momentous and unstoppable force. It might be completely sincere or it might be the blackest comedy imaginable. Given the irony found elsewhere (the aforementioned ‘Plus Ones’, the fact that the title track is called, well, ‘Title Track’), it’s tempting to plump for the latter.

Whilst Sheff obviously has a love of writing in character, there’s also plenty of his own life on display here, from the references to backstage chatter and touring disillusion. In ‘Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe’, Sheff wryly observes how the conventional techniques of cinema are not reflected in our own lives – there are no fade ins, quick cuts or dissolves – but it’s still worth watching. ‘Unless It’s Kicks’ crisply describes human attempts to make sense of troublesome situations (‘what gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man, unless it’s fictions, unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?’).

‘The Stage Names’ pulls off a neat trick in sounding both raw and carefully crafted, with Sheff a continuing master of rock dynamics. Sheff also proves himself adept at taking the conventional elements of rootsy American music (blues chord sequences, occasional slide guitar, rockabilly riffs) and translating them into a new and adventurous idiom. ‘The Stage Names’ is a gripping and gutsy treatise on love and life, with its own peculiar language and a relentlessly beating heart.