The occult circuitry of the pop-culture unconscious: who can figure it out? Remember when there were two disaster movies at the same time about volcanoes? Or two disaster movies at the same time about asteroids? (That’s something we were all worried about in 1997, or whatever. Sure.) What does it mean when we have two indie-rock songs in the same year about the suicide of John Berryman? Is that a little odd?
Okay, so nobody feels bad, I’m going to come right out and admit that until last year I had only the vaguest notion of who John Berryman might be, so if you didn’t either, that’s cool. Some poet, right? Yeah, so Wikipedia told me. American poet, jumped off a bridge in 1972, considered central to the Confessional school of poetry, whatever that might be, best known for The Dream Songs. Unhappy guy. But apparently, though nobody knew it at the time, he totally rocked, because the rockers are paying him tribute. First we had the Hold Steady’s fist-pumping “Stuck Between Stations,” and now we have Okkervil River’s majestic album-closer, “John Allyn Smith Sails.”
These records came out only about eight months apart, and the bands work in different cities, so there’s no way anybody influenced anybody on this one—but it’s still right, somehow. In their own way, both bands are central to what’s happening Right Now, showing in their completely opposite ways how much can still be done with this music now that everything’s been done. And both have clearly read a lot of books. On the one hand you’ve got Craig Finn’s bruised retro-populism, just fake enough to be real (if that makes any sense.) Meatloaf with an MFA. And on the other, Will Sheff’s cracked folk grandeur—Conor Oberst if he knew about irony, Jeff Mangum if he could pull himself together. You’ve got Finn’s mordant “she said “you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life,” / And they didn’t, so he died.” And Sheff’s mournful “I knew that my last lines were gone / While stupidly I lingered on…”
Which is all by way of asking: have I talked about Okkervil River? I haven’t. Maybe I tried to make you listen to them, but I haven’t written anything yet. (For that matter, my definitive Hold Steady piece has yet to be written, too. But I’ve thought about it. It’s called “This Was Supposed to Be a Party.”) Anyway, Okkervil River are an American indie-rock band, on Jagjaguwar, from New Hampshire by way of Austin, and they’re just starting to get real attention with their fourth LP proper, The Stage Names, which is terrific.
The basic idea has remained unchanged—they started in something of a countrified chamber-folk mode, with banjos and woodwinds and whatnot, on the self-released Stars Too Small to Use and their official debut Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2002), but this was always a song-based band whose success or failure depended entirely on their songwriter. And Will Sheff, while his singing is spectacularly shaky at the best of times, is a real, undeniable talent, who writes not only dense hyper-literate narrative songs, but also remarkable melodies, with lines that stretch out far longer than you think they’re going to, that make you sit up and pay attention.
Down the River of Golden Dreams (2003) is where I got on board, and it’ll always be my sentimental favorite, but it’s Black Sheep Boy (2005) that was the breakthrough, an inscrutable double song-cycle that seemed to be both about a failed relationship too sad and uncomfortable not to be real, and about the title character, the Black Sheep Boy, who seems both Satanic and kind of sympathetic. And The Stage Names, while it isn’t perfect, is a mature, satisfying piece of work that deserves the attention it’s gotten.
Black Sheep Boy was beautiful, but outside of “For Real” and “Black” it tended toward the funereal—the first surprising thing about The Stage Names is how much it rocks. Guitars and drums snap and crackle all over the place—though there’s still a very solid ballad in “A Girl in Port,” and also a bit of a weak link in “Savannah Smiles.” (As far as slow-as-molasses story songs go, both “Maine Island Lovers” and “Yellow” from Golden Dreams were better.) There seems to be some kind of theme, here—as the title indicates, there’s some kind of obsession with Performance, and Artifice—but it never gets pretentious. Indeed, there’s a sly wit in these songs that Sheff really hasn’t shown before, which is very encouraging. Consider especially the biting “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” and the remarkable “Plus Ones.” That one, on paper, is a novelty song—a series of comic riffs that do well-worn numeric songs one better. The ninety-seventh tear, the hundredth luftballon, the seventeenth candle, etc. But it’s deadly serious, shot through with real life and real consequences: “the fifty-first way to leave your lover / Admittedly it doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”
Then, eventually, you get to “John Allyn Smith,” and you start to see how much is really going on here. For the first two minutes and thirty seconds, it’s a bitter but nimble lament in the voice of a dead poet: “by the second verse, dear friends / My head will burst, my life will end…” But then Berryman, and Sheff, make that leap—and something happens. The song slows down, and shifts to a different, simpler rhythm. A new melody suddenly bursts into being, as the dying Berryman remembers his own father’s suicide—“I hear my father fall / I hear my mother call…” But you think I know this tune, what’s going on? and then it hits you. Weirdly, impossibly, we’ve landed in a bleak alternate version of “The Sloop John B,” that old Beach-Boys-approved folk chestnut. It was always sort of mournful for a Beach Boys tune, anyway, but now it’s been alchemically transformed into a literal suicide note. This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Then a squeal of feedback, and The Stage Names surges to the finish line, as you realize—oh, wait, John B, it all makes some kind of weird impossible sense—and guitars and drums spill out some miserable guy’s last thoughts: I feel so broke up / I want to go home. Yeah, exactly.