Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Music Review: Okkervil River - The Stage Names

It’s difficult listening to an album for the first time after fans and critics alike have already picked it clean and are working on the bones. Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible to listen to a new record without any preconceived ideas of either it or its creators, hearing a months-old album for the first time is a bit like catching a must-see movie after the fact. In many cases, it’s hard not to be disappointed, as overblown hype and positive reviews can lead to unrealistic expectations.

For several months Okkervil River’s The Stage Names remained on my Must Listen To Before I Spring Off This Mortal Coil list. I liked 2005’s Black Sheep Boy well enough, especially its ragged sound and subject matter, even if it sometimes bordered on the overly melodramatic. Yet for whatever reason, as the plaudits for The Stage Names poured in, my doubts about how good an album it really was continued to increase.

Perhaps the attendant hype and eventual letdown around recent albums like Magic and Neon Bible have made me too skeptical. Despite this, The Stage Names is one of those rare albums where listeners hearing it for the first time won’t walk away wondering what all the spastic fuss is about. Over nine songs, Will Sheff and company craft a remarkable album that reveals new layers with each subsequent listen.

Most of the album’s reviews have focused on its obvious themes of the relationship between musicians and fans, the role and meaning of popular music in everyday life, and life on the stage. Certainly these are littered throughout the album: references to “some midlevel band” and “the ghost of some rock and roll fan, floating up from the stands with her heart opened up” make these themes obvious and impossible to ignore.

But this is an easy and somewhat lazy analysis. Such reviews make the album sound like a modern-day Ziggy Stardust, or, at its worst, a humorless and bleak concept album like Pink Floyd’s soap opera drivel The Wall. What’s most striking after several listens are the album’s “smaller” themes and how they unfold: life’s disappointments and boredom, little and massive failures, and lost and wasted opportunities.

These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are almost always skewed with a wry and dark sense of humor, whether it’s a messy breakup that references Paul Simon (“The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly, doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others…”), an unspectacular 17th birthday (“not everyone’s keen on lighting candle 17. The party’s done. The cake’s all gone. The plates are clean.”), or simple, biting observations that offer only small consolations (“It was your heart hurting, but not for too long, kid”).

These themes are perhaps most clearly evident in “Savannah Smiles” and “John Allyn Smith Sails,” two musically disparate songs that bookend the album. “Savannah Smiles” is a bleak account of groupie and porno actress Shannon Wilsey, told from the point of view of a father simply trying to figure where and how things went wrong. Will Sheff’s vocal is sufficiently fragile to convey the father’s emotions: “Photos show no tears in her eyes. All those pretty years gone by I just cannot believe could do that to a child.” The dark humor found throughout the album surfaces again, this time with a nasty tone. Shannon’s father reads her diary but regrets what he’s read: “Talk about your big mistakes – hey Shan, nice going.”

“John Allyn Smith Sails” addresses the suicide of poet John Berryman and is the album’s standout track. Sheff sings in Berryman’s voice as a defeated man, a “fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed” whose best days and writings are long behind him. Sheff supposes that Berryman might have viewed his death as a welcome change, of course with a twisted sense of humor: “From a bridge on Washington Avenue, the year of 1972 broke my bones and skull, and it was memorable… Oh, but wise men know when it’s time to go, and so I should too.”

Those familiar with Berryman’s work will also notice that the lyrics also mirror some of the phrases found in the poet’s Dream Songs: “I’m stripped down to move on own, my friends” and “stupidly, I lingered on” as examples. With additional details about Berryman’s life scattered throughout the song – the Brass Rail bar, his university job in Minnesota – it’s a convincing take on how Berryman might have felt about himself.

The Stage Names isn’t exactly depressing – the anthemic and driving instrumentation in some of the songs, the wild horn arrangements, the band’s mostly upbeat playing, and enough musical and cultural references to satisfy any sick muso ensure that listeners won’t be violently sobbing at the album’s close – but it isn’t entirely uplifting either. Its characters exist in an uneasy space between hope and hopelessness, resignation and stubborn determination.

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