Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff told me in an interview for an R.E.M. retrospective piece a few years back that when his band was initially conceived, “What was shocking, and quite funny to me, was that when I started Okkervil River and we incorporated some of the same stuff — bringing in mandolins and accordions and stuff like that — people called it ‘country’ because we had started the band in Texas. To me it was always an R.E.M. kind of idea, those kind of woody, acoustic textures integrated into rock, choking it up a bit.”And indeed, the band first caught my ear when I read a review by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, describing the band as “a gripping cross of drowsy understatement and lightning bolts of anxiety, like Pavement bursting through the middle of R.E.M’s “Country Feedback,” name-checking two of my favorite bands of the time and inspiring a purchase of Down The River Of Golden Dreams.
The band formed back in 1998 in Austin, TX, and were named after a Tatyana Tolstaya short story. Borrowing their name from an obscure piece of literature has frequently led to them being pigeonholed as a sort of Decemberists-esque, didactic band of academics, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They’ve never shied from a terrific narrative, but their songs and albums are visceral, often daring to assume a dark sexual swagger. This is anything but fey pop.
Their debut album Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See was an auspicious opening volley, but it was on Down The River Of Golden Dreams that they really found their footing, as Sheff’s voice as a lyricist developed significantly. Songs such as “The War Criminal Rises And Speaks” and “Yellow” are downright harrowing in their sheer, bloodcurdling accounts of betrayal, loss, and contrition.
2005’s Black Sheep Boy raised the stakes significantly for the band, introducing a wider palette of instrumentation and an overall confidence in the songwriting process that culminated in a grand achievement. Recorded with Brian Beattie, who also helmed the boards for Don’t Fall in Love, the album’s fulsome without ever becoming overwhelmed with superfluous studio trickery. An addendum, Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP, was released shortly thereafter, nicely tying up some loose ends from the LP.
Around a year prior to the release of 2007’s The Stage Names, I ran into the band’s ex-publicist at a show. Discussing the impending follow-up, she revealed to me that she felt as though Sheff was feeling the pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up to Black Sheep Boy. For the first time in the band’s career, there were expectations. Sheff would deny this when I interviewed him prior to the record’s release, but whatever he was feeling, it translated into a flat-out superb record, one that deconstructed the absurdity of the performer/myth archetype in a manner akin to Martin Scorsese’s film King Of Comedy, while also presenting an oft-ignored facet of life within the indie milieu — that of sexuality. Songs such as “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man”and “Unless It Kicks”have a hip-swinging swagger sorely lacking in modern indie music, realistically depicting adult sexuality.
The Stand Ins, released a year after The Stage Names, is something of a sister piece to its predecessor. While it’s been maligned as a record of half-baked leftovers, in actuality it contains some of Okkervil River’s finest songs, including the Jonathan Melburg duet “Lost Coastlines,”and the quixotic, lovelorn “Calling and Not Calling My Ex.”
Following The Stand Ins, the band backed a personal hero in fellow Austinite Roky Erickson on True Love Cast Out All Evil, which was produced by Sheff. While the album’s indisputably superb, it belongs to Erickson, and therefore is omitted in the countdown.
The next proper Okkervil River album to arrive was 2011’s I Am Very Far, and to some, this looms as a black mark on their discography. Dismissed my many fans, it’s a deeply complex, rewarding work that pays dividends given multiple listens. Revisit it a few times if you haven’t done so in the past few years. It’s certainly a rewarding endeavor that’s well worth the investment.
Perhaps keen to craft a more immediate album, the band enlisted John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Cymbals Eat Guitars, Cyndi Lauper) to produce this year’s The Silver Gymnasium. While it’s overstuffed with sprightly synths and roistering guitars, the songs themselves are nonetheless left with ample room to breathe. It has as much depth as any record Okkervil have released to date, and reveals new layers each time you listen. It’s essentially the only move this band could have made — a quantum sonic leap forward. As Okkervil River continue to follow their own distinctly idiosyncratic muse as one of the finest bands of the ’00s and ’10s, they’ll certainly be worth keeping close tabs on. For now, let’s count down the embarrassment of riches they’ve offered us thus far.
Start the Countdown here.