Okkervil River, “The Stage Names”

Andrew Hall

On their fourth album, Austin sextet Okkervil River move onward from the world of 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, abandoning their familiar territory of unrequited love and extended-length epics. They’ve even gone so far as to embrace traditional pop structures, now sounding more like a rock and roll band than they ever did before. Despite this, singer-songwriter Will Sheff’s words have become denser, more intriguing, and are still every bit as powerful as they were on the band’s previous releases, exploring the worlds of celebrity, pop culture, and the blur between fiction and autobiography with a remarkable attention to detail.

The album opens fittingly with the sound of a projector spinning into action, leading into the first single, “Our Life is Not a Movie Or Maybe.” Sheff moves quickly through dozens of words to make his case that everyday life really just isn’t that interesting: “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax,” he sings as he tears through film scenes, quickly zooming out as the band erupts into shouting, feedback, and cacophony without sounding alienating. It shows that they’ve discovered how to condense the power of their epics into something brief and almost radio-friendly without losing anything in the process.

Sheff’s obsessions dominate much of the material. “Unless It’s Kicks” explores the life of the touring band and the importance of fiction, as he explains the plight of the writer (whose own life couldn’t possibly be that compelling), the band (“midlevel,” “driving too long”), and “the ghost of some rock and roll fan” (who doesn’t know her idols at all). “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” cleverly explores the effects of seeing their own songs in the background on television without doing any advertising. Instead, the song hits hard with its dense, fast-moving descriptions and almost anthemic chorus, complete with girl-group harmonies.

“Plus Ones” plays with the idea of adding an additional integer to about a dozen other pop songs, making it quite possibly the only one to successfully reference ? and the Mysterians, David Bowie, the Zombies, and the Crests, among others, in under four minutes. “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” returns to the story of a band, now washed up and not all that friendly: “And you look your age – which is thirty-seven, by the way, and not twenty-eight,” the rock and roll fan shouts back as the song ends in both pissed-off arguing and an upbeat horn outro. It’s a strange, yet powerful combination, much like the album closer, “John Allyn Smith Sails,” which narrates the suicide of poet John Berryman before becoming a warped reinterpretation of the traditional “Sloop John B,” sitting comfortably as the last twisted joke in an album full of them.

Many thought Black Sheep Boy was an unrepeatable high for Okkervil River, but The Stage Names proves that the band is still improving rapidly. It’s hard not to expect the followup to this album to be both completely different and even better.

Grade: A