Okkervil River

TrackAlbum
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or MaybeThe Stage Names
It Ends With A FallDown The River Of Golden Dreams
The War Criminal Rises And SpeaksDown The River Of Golden Dreams
A StoneBlack Sheep Boy
Calling And Not Calling My ExThe Stand Ins
We Need A MythI Am Very Far
It Was My SeasonThe Silver Gymnasium
Down Down The Deep RiverThe Silver Gymnasium
The IndustryAway
Judey On A StreetAway

Okkervil River photo 1

 

 

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Okkervil River playlist

 

 

Contributor: Joel Dear

Named after a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya, Okkervil River are frequently compared to the Decemberists – you know, the other vaguely folky American indie band who released their debut album in 2002, owe their name to Saint Petersburg and want you to know that they’ve read a lot of books. But the similarities between the two bands are mostly superficial; as much as I love the Decemberists, few of their best songs endeavour to say anything. Colin Meloy spins his yarns about vengeful mariners and doomed lovers and wretched orphans bonking sexy widows, and we all have a jolly good time – hell, perhaps we even learn a bit of history – but rare is the Decemberists song that challenges your beliefs or changes the way you look at the world.

Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff doesn’t really do vengeful mariners and wretched orphans. His characters are more familiar, their tribulations more modern; Yellow, for instance, concerns a man who is going through a divorce and questioning whether his soon-to-be-ex wife ever really loved him in the first place. Okkervil River songs are real, man.

Which is not to say that they lack drama. In fact, Okkervil River make incredibly dramatic music; even their first LP, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, was replete with swooning strings, bouncy horns, and other sonic theatrics. Their finest moments (and there are plenty to choose from; the following top ten excludes several fan favourites) are nothing short of explosive.

 

Our Life Is Not A Movie Or MaybeThe Stage Names (2007)

I first heard this song on a CD that came free with an issue of Uncut magazine. I had never listened to Okkervil River before, but I was a fan before those four minutes were up.

Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe is track one on 2007’s The Stage Names, and as opening gambits go, this one’s a humdinger. The song is structured like a rollercoaster: each verse is underpinned by a nervy, ticking drum beat, and the tension builds and builds until, at last, you’re hurled into the chorus. The next few moments are a blur – Will Sheff’s voice jumps an octave higher (always an effective way to up the ante) and the band cut loose – but then you hit another slope and the tension has to build and build again. Each chorus is more intense than the one before it, and by the end of the song, they’re giving it absolutely everything they’ve got. I love songs that hold nothing back, and more than a decade after I stumbled across it, I still can’t get enough of this one.

 

It Ends With A FallDown The River Of Golden Dreams (2003)

According to iTunes, I’ve listened to It Ends With A Fall more than any other track in my library. It’s not just my most-played Okkervil River song; it’s apparently my most-played song full stop.

This is partly because I listen to its parent album, Down The River Of Golden Dreams, so often. The band’s second full-length release really is a sublime collection of songs, and this wistful number sets the tone beautifully:

Wish I could remember why it mattered to me
It doesn’t matter to me
It doesn’t matter to me any more

Okkervil River explore a lot of different themes on Down The River Of Golden Dreams, but above all, it’s an album about growing up and shedding your naïve, romantic ideals in order to survive in a world that is, to quote the song Blanket And Crib, “already tracing a line across your throat”. It Ends With A Fall is a break-up song, but Will Sheff’s narrator isn’t getting down on his knees and begging you to stay; instead, he’s struggling to remember why he ever cared about you, and marvelling that his heart was ever so open.

Or perhaps he’s totally devastated, and this song is just him putting on a brave face. Either way, it chugs along nicely, and that melancholy melody must activate something in my brain because I find it strangely addictive.

Still, no matter what the numbers say, my absolute favourite Okkervil River song is …

 

The War Criminal Rises And SpeaksDown The River Of Golden Dreams (2003)

There’s a song on Okkervil River’s first album called Westfall. It was inspired by some real-life murders that occurred in Austin in 1991, and it’s sung from the point of view of one of the killers. It’s a song about the banality of evil; its moral, so to speak, is that anyone can commit an atrocity. A perfectly ordinary human being can do unspeakably horrifying things – or, as Will Sheff puts it, “evil don’t look like anything”.

Westfall is a really good song. But as Will Sheff explained in a 2016 interview with Clrvynt, there’s a problem:

We have this song, Westfall, from our first album, that was about this awful series of murders, the Austin Yogurt Murders. The song was this attempt to project myself into what kind of person does something like that. In a non-judgement way, almost like, ‘Let me see how you can get there in your mind.’ And we started to play it live, and the more we played it, the more it would get rocked out, and we turned it into this anthemic thing. In my mind, I was doing this Johnny Cash let’s-let-people-feel-this-uncomfortable-feeling of rocking out to something that’s creepy. What happened was we started getting these crazy cheers for it, dudes screaming, ‘Play the song about killing the chicks!’ So, we don’t play the song anymore … I tapped a thing I didn’t mean to tap, and it was immediately frightening.

I’ve no idea whether Will Sheff wrote The War Criminal Rises And Speaks before or after Westfall was dropped from the band’s live set, but it does feel to me like a second attempt to convey that message – “evil don’t look like anything” – this time without making murder sound quite so badass.

The War Criminal Rises And Speaks opens with the barely-audible patter of drum brushes. From there, it gradually swells up, adding more instruments and generally getting bigger and louder until the whole thing finally collapses under its own weight. Even if it featured no singing at all, it would be an utterly breathtaking listen.

But it’s Will Sheff’s lyrics that really launch The War Criminal Rises And Speaks into the stratosphere. For the most part, he abandons Westfall’s first-person voice and instead casts himself as the omniscient narrator, looking on as you drive home from work and catch up with the latest headlines:

So they found a lieutenant who killed a village of kids
After finishing off the wives, he wiped off his knife and that’s what he did

But then Sheff leaps up an octave (just as he would later do in Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe) and we hear from the war criminal himself, who begs you – yes, you – to recognise that you have the capacity to do everything he did and worse things besides. After all, there are no evil people; only evil deeds.

And this startling address is only made more unsettling when the music calms down and Sheff, back in the role of the narrator, delivers this icily sarcastic reassurance:

Your heart’s warm and kind
Your mind is your own
So our blood-spattered criminal is inscrutable
Don’t worry – he won’t rise up behind your eyes and take wild control
He’s not of this time; he fell out of a hole

 

A StoneBlack Sheep Boy (2005)

I’m aware that many people believe Black Sheep Boy to be Will Sheff’s magnum opus. Sadly, I am not among them. I daresay that my decision to omit songs like Black and So Come Back, I Am Waiting from this list will raise the hackles of many an Okkervil River diehard, but the album just doesn’t blow me away like The Stage Names and Down The River Of Golden Dreams still do with every listen.

Even this, my favourite song from Black Sheep Boy, is not without its issues. A Stone is a stonking track with dazzling lyrics, but … how to put this? It’s a Nice Guy song. It’s a ‘that guy’s a jerk, date me instead’ song. Will Sheff is addressing a woman he fancies and whining that, despite all his grand gestures of love, she remains more interested in the callous, unfeeling ‘stone’ of the title.

Still, it’s another brilliant Okkervil River slow build, and it ends with a fantastic extended metaphor about a princess and her many suitors, so it makes the list regardless of its slightly iffy undercurrent. Call it a guilty pleasure, I guess.

 

Calling And Not Calling My ExThe Stand Ins (2008)

The Stage Names and its sister album The Stand Ins are undeniably concept albums, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what concept they’re albuming about. The basic idea, I think, is thus: fame, like the skull in that Hans Holbein painting of the two ambassadors, only makes sense when you observe it from exactly the right angle. Look at your favourite celebrity from a point of view other than that which is presented to you, and things start to go a little bit weird.

Calling And Not Calling My Ex is a prime example of this theory in action. The narrator’s former girlfriend is now a world-famous film star, and he’s not sure what to make of this development – where everyone else is seeing a shiny, flawless celebrity, he’s seeing an actual human being whom he knows in real life and who, more to the point, caused him a lot of pain.

You look the same on TV as when you were mine
I walk in from the kitchen and I finger the remote control
I watch you from the distance, you go walking through the terminal
I remember every instance when you stung me
Oh, you’re so lovely! Oh, you’re so smart!
So go turn their heads, go knock them dead, go break their hearts
Baby, break their hearts
(And I know you will)

That last bit is so fantastically bitter and at odds with the celebratory, Christmassy feel of the music. I love it.

 

We Need A Myth I Am Very Far (2011)

A transcendental song about the importance of stories. The first minute or so of We Need A Myth makes for a slightly disjointed listen – the key changes with each new verse, and the band seem to take a little while to settle on what they want this track to sound like – but eventually a groove is found, and it’s all upward from there. The string part that’s introduced about two and a half minutes in makes me swoon every time, and it’s even better when it returns during the song’s climax.

 

It Was My SeasonThe Silver Gymnasium (2013)

The Silver Gymnasium was the third Okkervil River album I owned, but more importantly, it was my point of no return. I already loved The Stage Names, and I Am Very Far had its moments (see above), but The Silver Gymnasium was when I knew that I wanted to hear everything this band had to offer.

Released in September 2013, it’s a very ‘autumn’ album – which instantly endeared it to me – and it’s a very nostalgic album, which I also appreciated; I was twenty-two years old when I first heard The Silver Gymnasium, and I suppose I was feeling a bit more grown-up than I was ready for. Will Sheff’s recollections of his New Hampshire childhood were just what I needed at that moment in time.

It Was My Season kicks the album off with a cheery piano line that gradually evolves into a deeply bittersweet song about two kids who are in love with each other, yet painfully aware that they’ll drift apart as they get older.

They say that I’ll go to college
And you will stay home
And watch while I’m leaving
And the cold will just creep in

 

Down Down The Deep RiverThe Silver Gymnasium (2013)

I like to think of The Silver Gymnasium as a kind of companion piece, or perhaps a sequel, to Down The River Of Golden Dreams (which came out ten years before The Silver Gymnasium, almost to the day). In 2003, Will Sheff was a hungry twentysomething songwriter, struggling to make a career out of his craft and only just getting to know the world in all its brutality. By 2013, Sheff was getting dangerously close to forty, and probably wishing more than ever that he could be a child again, free from the responsibilities and existential crises of adulthood. One album is about growing up; the other is about wishing you could grow back down.

Down Down The Deep River – whose title seems like a deliberate callback to Down The River Of Golden Dreams – is Okkervil River’s big Bruce Springsteen moment. It’s a solid six and a half minutes long, but like Springsteen’s Thunder Road, it could go on for twice that time and still not outstay its welcome. The verses showcase Sheff’s writing at its most earnest, its most romantic, its most yearning …

Oh, I’ll be your fighter and you’ll be my mirror
And you’ll be all right because I’ll be right here
Oh kid, now I’m not going anywhere
I swear I’ll try to not be going anywhere

… and each one culminates in a chorus the size of a stadium:

Down a hall in your house
Down a road in December
Down, down the deep river
Down, down the deep river

If you’ve ever missed your family; if you’ve ever wondered whether your old friends still think about you; if you’ve ever felt a wave of nostalgia and lamented that, as Will Sheff puts it, “we can never go back – we can only remember”, then this is your song now. Play it loud.

 

The IndustryAway (2016)

Hoo, boy – speaking of nostalgia!

Do you remember, baby, back in ’96?
When some record was enough to make you raise your fist?
When some singer’d make you sure that you exist?

The Industry is pure disillusionment set to a colourful backing track. Will Sheff states in the aforementioned Clrvynt interview that this song is not directed at any one person in particular, but whether or not that’s true, I hear very real resentment when he sings lines like “I watched you turn into your very opposite, into everything we were trying to reject”.

And yet there’s something pure and good in amongst all that bitterness. Maybe Will Sheff loathes the music industry, but to his surprise, he still loves music:

Well, I never thought I’d feel like that again!

 

Judey On A StreetAway (2016)

Historically, almost all of Okkervil River’s album art has been provided by William Schaff. His distinctive style was, for nearly two decades, a core part of the band’s aesthetic; his illustrations always had an appealingly old-fashioned feel to them, and yet each one was also kind of disturbing. Who could ever forget the freaky man-squid hybrid from Down The River Of Golden Dreams, or the assorted black-and-white creatures sitting down for dinner on the cover of Black Sheep Boy?

But 2016’s Away was conceived as a kind of death and rebirth for Okkervil River (the first track is literally titled Okkervil River R.I.P.) and this is reflected in the album’s packaging. William Schaff’s artwork is gone, and in its place, there’s a heartbreakingly beautiful painting by an artist named Tom Uttech.

Judey On A Street, Away’s seven-minute centrepiece, is what that painting sounds like in my head. I’m not sure what I can even say about it that the cover of Away doesn’t say better. I listen to it, and I feel like I’m flying.

 

Okkervil River are still going strong – In The Rainbow Rain, their latest album at time of writing, was released in April 2018, and more recently still the band shared a dozen live albums (recorded at various stages of their career) under the banner A Dream in the Dark. I myself have never seen Okkervil River perform, but I hope I will one day, and I really hope they play The War Criminal Rises And Speaks.

 

Okkervil River photo 2

Okkervil River – photo: Shervin Lainez (2018)

 

 

Okkervil River official website

Down The Oubliette: Okkervil River Fansite

Okkervil River Posters (at Down The Oubliette)

Okkervil River Lyrics

Shearwater official website

Travis Nelsen (1975–2020)

Okkervil River biography (AllMusic)

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff. He makes music of his own under the name Shiny Tiger – you can listen to his songs on SoundCloud.

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