Down the River of Golden Dreams
Will Sheff and his Okkervil River bandmates Jonathan Meiburg, Zach Thomas, and Seth Warren are men out of time. I don't mean to harp once more on the "old-timey" sound or their usage of odd instrumentation (although the title track of their latest release, Down the River of Golden Dreams, does sound eerily like a somber rendition of the barroom piano tunes my Grandpa used to play for the family when I was a kid); what I'm getting at is that these guys sound like nobody else, from this or any other era. On a stage full of depressingly cardboard-sounding, near-identical "artists," Okkervil River stand in a bright spotlight of their own creation. These guys do what nobody else does, and they do it amazingly well.
Take what's undoubtedly the high point of Down the River, the awesome, astounding "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" -- if this were anybody else, the song would be the high point not just of an album, but of a career. Seriously, how many artists could ever take what's essentially a pop song and turn it into a meditation on the nature of evil and the need to believe that we're not all monsters in some deep-down, hidden corner of our souls? Damn few, by my estimation, and most of them hit their peak long ago. Dylan was great back in the '60s, it's true, but I could take him or leave him these days; give me Will Sheff, instead. This is unique stuff. Sure, Okkervil River draw from their influences, and the music makes me think of old soul records, Leonard Cohen, the Red House Painters, the Afghan Whigs, The Kinks, and Woody Guthrie, among other things, but the end result is all their own.
Of course, that makes it difficult to describe what they sound like; that's why the band gets tagged with the "alt-country" label so damn often (yes, even by this writer, I'll admit). I could call it "pop," too, but that's about as far from the truth as you can get when you consider that the the very definition of "pop" is that it's, um, somewhat disposable, and this definitely ain't. So, if I can't label 'em for you, well...that makes my job a lot harder. The instrumentation provides a bit of a helping hand; the ensemble includes a ton of horns, some strings, Wurlitzer, mandolin, banjo, bells (played by indie-rock oddity John Vanderslice), and even things called "Whirlies" (your guess is as good as mine). Then there's the influences/sounds mentioned above, which do pop up throughout, along with some Uncle Tupelo-ish touches, and a bit of the also-aforementioned Bob Dylan, but the songs themselves manage to absorb all those disparate styles and sounds and come out sounding like a unique, cohesive whole.
"It Ends With a Fall," another of the best songs on Down the River, is a burner of a song compared with much of the rest of the album -- it starts out slow, but once it gets moving, Sheff's frustrated, demanding vocals take over, echoing the desperation of the song's main character, who's trapped in some kind of almost-relationship he can't get out of. By way of contrast, though, the track that follows, "For The Enemy," creeps along at a glacially slow pace 'til the end; it'd be almost sinister, if it weren't for the comforting sounds of the organ and pedal steel. Sheff's voice stays ominously soft and restrained up to the song's climax, when all the instruments finally build to a beautiful crescendo and then collapse triumphantly.
The band follows a slightly different route with "Maine Island Lovers," a deliberate, slow-paced song about an affair headed for its inevitable end that glides along like a canoe on a glassy lake, stark and yet somehow warm and sunlit all the way through. The only song that really gets a rollicking, speedy kind of feel is "Song About A Star," which uses Irish folk-ish mandolin and keys to explain how that guy/girl up on the TV screen who you'd swear (after you've had a few, naturally) loves you doesn't, but instead belongs to everybody everywhere. Along the way, it makes me think of The Pogues, although that might just be the mandolin talking... A couple of the songs -- "Dead Faces" and "Seas Too Far to Reach," in particular -- sound quite a bit like the more folk-y stuff off the band's previous effort, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See, but that's really not the rule. Taken as a whole, this album veers off in a very different direction from Don't Fall in Love. It's slower and more subdued, less crazed-sounding and careening, and feels a whole heck of a lot more introspective and real-worldly; there seem to be actual messages behind the words, as opposed to just a handful of stories (albeit well-told ones) about dogs, lovers, and the holidays.
Throughout Down the River, Sheff's incredible lyrics don't necessarily make sense to me (as with the beautiful, resigned "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion"), but they still sound like they've got to make sense to somebody, somewhere. Sheff writes songs that are stories, yes, but the details are often obscured enough that the listener has to fill in the blanks -- for example, I think the final song on the album, "Seas Too Far to Reach," is about the death of a father and attempts to deal with that loss as a family, but hell, I can't tell for absolute sure. (What I am fairly certain of, though, is that the song itself is a bit of an in-joke, pointing backwards to Okkervil River's first album, Stars Too Small to Use, but that's kind of beside the point.)
When I hear the bit in "The Velocity of Saul" where Sheff howls "Enough 'you and I' / Enough of 'the fight' / Enough of 'prevail' / or 'walk in the light,'" I want to say that it's a plea to quit putting up a brave front and give in to grief, but that's just me, just the way it makes me feel, and I'd wager than nearly everyone who listens to the album could come away thinking something different. Which, at least in my book, is a good thing. (JH)
(Jagjaguwar Recordings -- 1021 South Walnut, Bloomington, IN. 47401; http://www.jagjaguwar.com/; Okkervil River -- http://www.jound.com/okkervil)