Okkervil River is a great band, and I am a huge fan. I have been happily following their progress ever since first seeing them play at Emo’s about four years ago and wondering, “Who the hell is this and why have I not heard them before?” Will Sheff is a gifted lyricist and songwriter, and I’ve spent many hours poring over the dense wordplay of some of his best songs, coming as close to doing a “close reading” since my college days and unraveling some wonderful mysteries along the way. I like this band. Really, I do.
Bearing that in mind, please know that I have been waiting with bated breath for their follow up to last year’s The Stage Names. Another great thing about this band, though, is that you don’t have to wait three or four years for another album. They’ve been churning out albums, appendices, and online EPs almost faster than I can keep up, and that’s not a complaint. They turn out excellent work, and even though The Stage Names was a slightly weaker album overall than its predecessor Black Sheep Boy, the band behind Sheff had grown immensely tighter, and the album was crowned by two of my favorite Okkervil River songs, “Plus Ones” and “John Allyn Smith Sails.” I like this band. Really, I do.
So I went out and bought their latest release, The Stand Ins, about two weeks ago. I have since given it multiple spins, and I have to say… I am disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good record, better than 90 percent of other stuff that’s out there right now, but in comparison to their other efforts, the album falls a little flat. The album begins with promise, after the first of three musical interludes that attempt to frame the album, with the track “Lost Coastlines.” The song picks up on the bouncy, Motown bass-driven sound of The Stage Names opener “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” and features a guest vocal by former band member and current lead singer of Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg. It’s a nice song, and the album is off to a good start. Another highlight is the gorgeous horns of mid-album song “Starry Stairs.” However, both of these songs were available well in advance of the album’s release, and when two of the best tracks on the record are no longer fresh, it has a tendency to make the rest of the album pale in comparison.
Another issue I have with this album, and one that makes me a little nervous, is its cynicism. “Singer Songwriter” is all about lambasting the artistic pretensions of a born rich musician who carries his or her clichéd indie smugness like a flag. While some of the lyrics are amusing, there seems to be a genuine malevolence towards this character, with lines like “You come from wealth/Yeah, you’ve got wealth/What a b*tch that they didn’t give you much else.” The same goes for the song “Pop Lies.” The premise of the lyrics is a pop artist who writes an uplifting pop ballad calculated to make the listener sing along, while all the while both the listener and the songwriter know that the message of the song is a farce. Again, this is a cynical song that, while truthfully pointing out the often flawed motives of both artist and listener, ignores the fact that pop music can give people hope. Yes, Whitney may have sang “I Will Always Love You” but then divorced Bobby Brown, the Beatles may have told us that love is all we need while war and misery still continue, and Celine Dion’s heart may go on even though Titanic sucked, but these are songs that people connect with for their own reasons that are personal to them. Yet Sheff admonishes both artist and audience by singing, “He’s the liar who lied in his pop song/And you’re lying when you sing along.” I see the irony of the song, and in the fact that people were singing along to it at the recent Okkervil River show I attended, so maybe that’s part of the joke. Regardless, there’s still a heavy dose of cynicism there that has prevented me from fully engaging in this album.
I had hoped that seeing them live a couple of weekends ago would have generated some excitement for the new album after hearing the live treatments of the songs, but the awful sound at Emo’s pretty much killed any chance of that for me. As I said before, while I am disappointed with this album as a whole, it’s still a good record. However, it is probably Okkervil River’s weakest effort to date. Hopefully their next release will be better. But I like this band. Really, I do.
Update (GW): My review of this album can be found here.