It's not particularly unusual to see a lead singer throw himself around the stage, break guitar strings, trip over cords, while yelling haphazardly in tune. Heck, it's practically part of the rock star job description. When Will Sheff, lead singer of Okkervil River, slips into this over-animated persona on stage, you would have no idea that he's actually an unassuming singer-songwriter whose personality leans more towards professor than rock star. He's relatively soft-spoken with a penchant for intelligent and intricate music. But, the second he gets in front of an audience his uncanny ability to completely rock out emerges, and Okkervil's folky anthems get transformed into surprisingly solid rock 'n' roll.
Okkervil River was formed by Will Sheff, Zach Thomas, and Seth Warren, high school friends from New Hampshire in 1998, who eventually settled down together in Austin. Seven years later, the band has lost a founding member and gained a few new ones, yet remains true to its innovative roots. The band name comes from a short story written by Russian author, Tatyana Tolstaya, Leo Tolstoy's great grandniece. It's also a real river outside of St. Petersburg. If the name seems a tad obscure, just wait until you hear the lyrics: Sheff writes complex songs that read straight out of a comp lit seminar. Take the song, "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," off of 2003's Down the River of Golden Dreams, about a man who searches for solace while reading about a lieutenant who killed a village of children. "Please stop ignoring the heart inside, oh you readers at home!" Sheff, sings, "While you gasp at my bloody crimes/ Please take the time to make your heart my home."
When asked about his lyrics, Sheff says that a song is only
meaningful if it has resonance. "If you take something out of a song,
then it has meaning. If someone takes something from my music, then I
guess I'm lucky that I was able to participate in their lives at all."
His songs certainly have a powerful presence, as they skirt the
mysteriously thin line between hope and helplessness, exploring subjects
like betrayal, disillusionment and death. It's the stuff Kafka novels
are made of.
Their latest album, Black Sheep Boy, delves deeper lyrically and musically than past LPs. For Black Sheep Boy, Okervill drew inspiration from '60s folk-singer Tim Hardin's song of the same name and created a concept album; the songs weave together to tell a story of an unloved, unwanted outcast, who may or may not be Sheff himself. Most of the songs on the album were written while Sheff was holed up in Bloomington, Indiana last February, after he broke up with a girlfriend of four years, quit his job, moved out of his house, and spent half the year on the road. He seems to have matured as a songwriter, and as he puts it, "Art exists to have a consoling or disruptive presence, it's a quasi-sacred kind of thing." This album certainly echoes that sentiment and the result is an extremely coherent collection of tales that revolve around repression, anger, lost love, and extreme loneliness.
Considering the intensely introspective lyrics, you might think that Okkervil's music would cause you to spiral into a deep depression and succumb to the existential void -- but it's quite the contrary. Okkervil's songs can be surprisingly upbeat, even jaunty at times. In addition to the standard guitar, bass and drums, the band took on a diverse range of less obvious instruments, including a mandolin, vibraphone, pump organ, Wurlitzer, horns and strings. It is a folk-rock implosion that bounces around from chamber-pop hooks to unadulterated rock 'n' roll with dusty ballads and creaky warbling to boot.
As Sheff croons on Blanket and Crib, "Far too late in the game you'll find that you have been betrayed: propped up and pushed into your place. I could claim that it all would go great, but the reason I came is to say that it won't." We have all felt desperate, defeated, useless and alone. Okkervil River makes those feelings seem all that much more real, but they are also able to subtly soothe our wounds and make us feel slightly less hopeless and somehow more content with our inevitable failures.