Okkervil River Albums From Worst To Best
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.
The Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP (2005)
This is the only EP included here, due to its inextricable link with the proper Black Sheep Boy album, and the fact that it served as something of a template for The Stand Ins. The album revolves around a motif established in the album's opening salvo "Missing Children," as a wobbly keyboard line and gossamer strings eerily saw as Sheff intones, "Kids grow up and kids get numb/ And kids it's coming, kids it's going to come." After the grand catharsis of Black Sheep Boy, this is something of an opportunity to reinforce some thematic gaps. "No Key, No Plan" is a particularly reckless barnstormer, while the grandiose "Last Love Song for Now" repeats the refrain from "Missing Children" as if it's a mantra, foreshadowing the themes of losing touch with the innocence of childhood that Sheff would revisit on albums to come.
Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2002)
Something of a thesis statement for Okkervil River, their debut LP Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See established the band's template that would be broadened with each successive release -- the canny way the mandolins pluck so unobtrusively beneath Sheff's bleating vocals, and the band's innate knack for crafting a resplendent melody, all undergirded by a steady bass and drum heartbeat. But what's most remarkable about this debut is Sheff's singular lyrical vision — an erudition in assuming sundry perspectives, be it an estranged mother and daughter ("Red"), a downtrodden addict contemplating suicide ("Kansas City"), or even a cold blooded murderer ("Westfall") he does so with dignity, candor, and a decidedly nonjudgmental ethos, arriving at the chilling conclusion in the latter track that "evil don't look like anything," as powerful a line as when the Misfit uttered in Flannery O'Connnor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," "She would've been a good woman if there had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life." A fine debut for a band destined for grander achievements.
The Stand Ins (2008)
The leftovers from The Stage Names remarkably cohere into a damn fine and thematic album, one that's markedly darker than its predecessor. It's what left after "The Stage Names" have evaporated into the ether, and tenderly picks up later in the life of Shannon Wilsey on "Starry Stairs," ostensibly a sequel to The Stage Names' "Savannah Smiles." The Stand Ins also delves more deeply into the beauty/ugliness of the ride band motif so prevalent throughout The Stage Names, as Sheff swaps perspectives with keyboardist Jonathan Melburg on the "Lust for Life"-esque "Lost Coastlines," lamenting the difficulties of holding a band together while being shit broke, with personalities clashing like atoms violently crashing together. The record closes on a tender note with the woozy, half-light rumination, "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979." It examines '70s glam icon Jobriath, often compared to David Bowie and later championed by Morrissey. Like most of the characters throughout The Stand Ins and The Stage Names, Jobriath lacked the countenance to achieve superstardom. But that didn't stop him, or any of the other performers held up for examination on these albums, from swinging for the fences anyway.
Down The River Of Golden Dreams (2003)
A childlike whimsy colors the intro to Down The River Of Golden Dreams, with a seemingly half-remembered childhood memory of a scratchy 45 being played and introduced by an elderly family member. The album indeed often conflates decidedly adult themes with childhood neuroses and comforts. Rollicking rave-ups collide with pensive, threadbare numbers, but many of the motifs that pervade Okkervil's albums past and present burn brightly here. Nonjudgmental examinations of transgressions abound, be it the contrite protagonist of "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," or the bereft man, seemingly consoled by Sheff, who has recently been separated from his wife ("Yellow"), or the couple cheating on Maine Island ("Main Island Lovers"), who "read without irony from a book my husband bought for me." Sure, there's adultery and sundry sins that would recur in perhaps more graphic form in later Okkervil albums, but Golden Dreams finds a certain doe-eyed innocence rushing headlong into the unmitigated pain of adulthood.
I Am Very Far (2011)
Easily the most miasmatic, harrowing, and schizophrenic LP the band released, stating, Will Sheff recently described the gestation process of I Am Very Far while discussing the anniversary of the Wrens' The Meadlowlands, saying, "The one time that I didn't really have any boundaries while recording a record, and that I was able to do what I wanted and take all the time that I wanted was when I did I Am Very Far. And I was going insane. I wasn't happy. It wasn't a happy state to be in." And indeed, there's a detached anomie at work throughout the album that renders it difficult to listen to at times, the sound of everything falling apart in a manner akin to classic nervous-breakdown records. Speaking to me shortly before the album's release, Sheff was decidedly circumspect. Explaining his reluctance to offer specific details, he said, "With The Stage Names I felt like a bloody autopsy had been performed on it, and it had no life left, and you could see all the different body parts on the table, and for me it was completely dead." From the clamorous, foreboding opener "Valley," through the pitch-black waltz number "Wake and Be Fine," I Am Very Far occupies a decidedly fractious headspace. Little is reconciled, and life, death, and love decay and smolder in a manner akin to a Cormac McCarthy novel, all scorched earth landscapes and fractured dialogue
He later revealed to me in that very same interview, "I like records that put you in an altered headspace. That's what I was looking for on this record, something that would give you that sort of uncomfortable feeling." Mission accomplished on this thoroughly indelible, challenging piece of work.
The Silver Gymnasium (2013)
A journey through Will Sheff's hometown of Meriden, NH circa 1985, The Silver Gymnasium instrumentally is something of a clarion yin to the crepuscular yang of I Am Very Far. But The Silver Gymnasium belies its jaunty instrumentation, cannily provided via accoutrements courtesy of producer John Agnello, with its ruminations on lost loves, broken dreams, and a pervading sense of disillusionment. "Down Down the Deep River" explores the minutiae of taping songs off the radio, as Sheff proclaims, "there was something in the air, something gathered in the air, something singing in the wind," with a certain wide-eyed naiveté. This isn't yet an idyllic journey "Down The River Of Golden Dreams," but it's something of a parochial precursor — a memory of a time when Sheff believed in something within his small town, and is able to look back on it with the clarity of a glimpse through the middle distance of adulthood. It isn't entirely devoid of cynicism — "show me my best memory, it's probably super crappy," he biliously intones on "Pink Slips." The Silver Gymnasium doesn't fatuously deny the complexity of coming of age at a certain time and place — instead it captures the spirit of youth and its attendant contradictions, meted out by Sheff with a certain cold clarity.
The Stage Names (2007)
"I think there's something revolutionary about a song like the Velvet Underground's 'Candy Says,' especially being written in 1970. This is someone who's absolutely a freak to the rest of the world, not worthy of being taken seriously by most people, but Lou Reed wrote a song that's unbelievably touching and compassionate and humanizing and immortal. I'm very touched by that kind of approach in writing," Will Sheff told me in an interview shortly before The Stage Names was released in 2007. Lou Reed had previously name checked Okkervil River as a personal favorite, even inviting them to open a NYC show in 2006, and his influence is all over The Stage Names. The saccharine "Savannah Smiles" borrows the threadbare elegance of the VU's "Stephanie Says," while "Unless It Kicks" is a distant cousin to "Street Hassle." Sheff mentioned somewhere around the release of the record that he was influenced by William T. Vollman's 2000 novel The Royal Family, and it's easy to find connections between the pariahs, junkies, and prostitutes Vollman so adroitly and compassionately depicted throughout his novel and the flawed characters that inhabit The Stage Names like ghosts in the ether. Perhaps they didn't have the constitution for success on the grand stage, but these characters ultimately embody a duality of rock clichés — they by turn burn out and fade away.
Black Sheep Boy (2005)
Loosely revolving around a motif of Tim Hardin's song "Black Sheep Boy," this album is Okkervil River's sublime pinnacle to date. There's a detached anomie at play throughout Black Sheep Boy, from the fractured rage that imbues "For Real," to the rollicking, anthemic "Black," which belies its carnival-esque keyboard melody with a pitch-black subject matter of the lasting scars of physical and emotional abuse. But there's a beating heart crying out to be loved throughout these 12 sensational tracks, from the jilted lover of "Song of Our So-Called Friend," with his offer of unrequited love, and even the seemingly incorrigible Black Sheep Boy, who emerges full bloom on the spectacular penultimate track "So Come Back, I Am Waiting," obsessing over the object of his obsession while a knotty cacophony of guitars and sawing cello imbue Sheff's affected puff-chested proclamations. The album's magnum opus eventually veers into a seemingly subconscious territory, as Sheff intones over stentorian instrumentation, "Killing softly and serial/ He lifts his head, handsome, horned, magisterial/ He's the smell of the moonlight wisteria/ He's the thrill of the abecedarian/ See the muddy hoofprints where he carried you?" It's unrepentant rage, but there's also a plaintive yearning expressed in his full-throated plea to "Come back and we'll take them all on/ So come back to your life on the land/ So come back to your old black sheep man. I'm waiting on hope and on pen. I'm waiting all hated and damned. I'm waiting I snort and I stare. I'm waiting you know that I am. Calmly waiting to make you my lamb." The lamb symbolizes a equanimity perhaps, and it's never attained, as closing track "The Glow" has the dirge-like feel of a wake. Black Sheep Boy isn't an easy listen, but it's one hell of a ride through wanton violence, pathological obsession, and the universal need for unconditional love. Nothing's black and white here. The lines between good and evil blur like water colors blended on stark canvas, and that's precisely what renders Black Sheep Boy such a superb album.