The Stage Names
By Eric Sams | 16 September 2007
In a display of prudently measured enthusiasm, fellow Glow scribe David Greenwald delivered the following open-ended verdict on Okkervil River’s last studio release, a seven track EP: “The only problem with The Black Sheep Boy Appendix (2005) is that it should have another five songs and twenty minutes. Let’s hope these songs are what they appear to be, evidence of musical growth that should carry over to the next full-length.” His verdict upon hearing the next full-length was decidedly less enthusiastic and less open-ended: “disappointing.”
And it would indeed be difficult not to be crestfallen when listening to The Stage Names. There you are, standing in front of your speakers, eyes closed tight, lips drawn into an expectant grimace, awaiting the adrenal gusts of reckless bitterness so gratifyingly tucked into songs like “For Real” or “Black.” Then, opening one hesitant eye as Will Sheff’s voice strains skyward for the first time on “Our Life is Not A Movie or Maybe,” you brace for the onslaught, the meltdown. But just as he reaches the breaking point where, of vocal necessity or for dramatic effect, he rends his syllables into a serrated scream, something odd happens: Sheff calms down. As he sings “I fall into silence,” the mounting bass drum tachycardia disappears, the beat resets itself, and he begins to sing the next verse over the tonal click of muted guitar strings.
The pattern is thrice repeated on this first track, and with each revolution the tension is distinctly and purposely heightened — the guitar jabs build more aggressively, the piano rumbles more ominously, and finally even a reverb-steeped falsetto choir accompanying the guitar solo – and although volatile voice does eventually become gravelly it never reaches maniacal; we never get our shit-fit. This reservation holds true for the album in its entirety. Musically speaking, there’s really nothing that approaches the ferocity of the most arresting passages of Black Sheep Boy (2005). What the hell, right?
Yet what Stage Names lacks in ferocity it makes up for in lyrical complexity. This is, lyrically and thematically, the densest effort in Okkervil River’s discography. If the record ultimately disappoints it is because the listener has made a reasonable but subjective judgment that the tradeoff never should have been made, or, while being worthwhile, failed in execution. I might agree with one or both of these assertions if I wasn’t kind-of awed by the subject matter with which the complex lyrics purport to deal.
The Stage Names seems to be an abstract treatise on the interplay between tidy narrative and chaotic experience. Nothing less than the gigantic po-mo conceit that the practical reductionism that makes narratives possible — that makes objects and ideas and especially experiences definable, classifiable, quantifiable and relatable — necessitates the sacrifice of some very important truths. This concept is frustratingly arcane until one realizes that all forms of art and communication are essentially narratives; then it’s just frustrating in general.
The first song suite — “Our Lives” through “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” — is both diffuse and overt, pointing out both the necessity and the inherent downfall in his own mythologizing. On “Unless It’s Kicks” Sheff bleats the album’s central idea: “What gives this mess some grace / Unless it’s kicks, man.” He then spends the rest of the album wildly attempting to portray the mess while sprinkling in enough kicks to give it some grace. I’ll concede to the disappointed that it’s the mess that comes through strongest.
I also won’t pretend to fully understand exactly how the lullaby “Savannah Smiles” or the maritime love song “Girl In Port” figure into this loosely organized theme. They are jarring, but they seem too carefully drawn, too earnest, to be mere filler. On “Plus Ones” Sheff jams a truly impressive number of pop references into an impossibly narrow gimmick. He adds one unit to a shitload of numerically titled songs, and in doing so he co-opts narratives structures with which we’re familiar, weaving them into a confusing tapestry of a ballad.
The overall listening experience of The Stage Names is not, it’s true, as fulfilling as Okkervil River’s past work. However, the nearly impossible thematic scope attempted and deftly handled here is a tribute to Will Sheff’s dexterity and range as a songwriter (if not a vocalist), and the band’s chops for being able to keep pace. So is it possible for a record to demonstrate musical growth and still be disappointing? I’m not sure. This album resolutely defies my attempts at glib paraphrasing, and as much as that may piss me off, I think it might also be the point.