Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See
After listening to Okkervil River's debut, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See, I have to wonder if the album title's meant as a warning, sort of the musical equivalent of "danger ahead" scrawled in the dirt. It feels like a cautionary note, one that says "yes, you could end up just like me."
Such a warning seems appropriate, really, when you consider that even the one cheery, jaunty-sounding song on here, a duet with vocalist/guitarist Will Sheff and odd Austin songwriter Daniel Johnston called "Happy Hearts," is all about how doomed we all are, meandering around looking for someone or something in which to pour our love. Despair is the underlying theme here, from the fast, bluegrass-sounding folk-country of "Dead Dog Song" (which, yes, is about the narrator's dog, dead at fourteen years) to the deliberate, slow, murky "My Bad Days," a drug trip gone bad where the singer confronts his mother about an unhappy childhood. This is the exorcism of demons.
The album starts innocently enough, with "Red," a swaying, languid tune that cruises along nicely 'til the first break, where the band throws in some of the most beautifully dissonant, odd instruments this side of Neutral Milk Hotel. Towards the end of the track, Sheff's voice seems to betray his true feelings -- he goes from quiet melancholy to a crazed, impassioned howl, his cracking voice adding to the feeling of desperation. The rich-, beautiful-sounding "Kansas City" (which boasts a truly addictive sing-song-y chorus) does the same, coming off at first as a mellow goodbye to a leaving lover but transmuting near the finish to frantic yelping; it's like the narrator knows he shouldn't get upset, but he's decided just can't hold it back anymore, and damn the consequences (and oddly enough, his voice reminds me then of Black 47, for some reason).
The true high point of the disc (so to speak), however, has got to be "Westfall," a grim, folk-bluegrass song about murder and evil; all hyperbole aside, this is the darkest, most chilling song I've heard since Bruce Springsteen sang us the story of Charles Starkweather's Midwestern killing spree. Delicate, beautiful mandolin underscores the absolute horror of what's going on, a tangled little tale that starts out like the life of any high school-aged kid but takes a horrific turn that made me press the "Back" button, unwilling to believe I'd heard correctly. My friend Ben always says that the primary qualifier for a "true" bluegrass song is that it invariably involves murder, and by that criteria, this pretty much qualifies. He also says it should be down by a river or a levee, but that doesn't really enter in til the final track, "Okkervil River Song," which is a depressing gem of a tune in itself, a Waterboys-ish story-song of finding (and losing again) paradise in the unlikeliest of places, down by the black, dirty river.
In between lurk a few less-memorable moments, like the brassy, rocking "Lady Liberty," which bugs me just slightly because the chorus feels shoehorned into an otherwise fine song, and "Dead Dog Song," which just kind of skates by without eliciting much of a reaction (although yes, I do like dogs, very much, thanks). Luckily, the album closes with two winners, the aforementioned "Okkervil River Song" and perhaps the gloomiest Christmastime song ever, "Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas," which is a soft, eloquent meditation on what its like to go home to the folks for Christmas without the one you love.
So, like I said at the start of this, maybe Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See is a warning, and maybe it's worth heeding; this album is not for the faint of heart (or for that matter, for people who strictly listen to "happy" music, like a few folks I know). What it is is a completely-thought-out examination of love, loss, and everything in between, mostly without worrying about the reasons why. After all, Sheff himself says it, partway through "Westfall": "Looking for evil, thinkin' they can trace it / Evil don't look like anything." Sometimes there just aren't reasons, and that's the bleakest part of it all. (JH)
(Jagjaguwar -- 1021 South Walnut, Bloomington, IN. 47401; http://www.jagjaguwar.com/jagjaguwar/)