With all the new music our digitized world has brought us, we haven’t necessarily gotten more albums that grapple with their status as art. That kind of high-level thinking may generally be too heady for rock and pop. Which is why when it’s done and done well, as it is on Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, it’s all the more impressive.
With his band’s fourth studio album, frontman Will Sheff stakes a claim here for the right to be called the best songwriter working right now. His musings on the intersection of art and life could easily bog down in stiff academics, if it weren’t for his sharp wit and wordplay. “The Plus Ones” is a music nerd’s wet dream. The song endlessly references other music — the title refers to Sheff adding one to the numbers in such songs as “96 Tears,” “8 Miles High,” and “7 Chinese Bros.” Just when that starts getting gimmicky, he throws in the ace lyric, “What’s new, pussycat, is you were once a lioness/ They took your claws out.”
Music again is at the center of “Unless It’s Kicks,” a rocker about rock and bands and rock-band fans. Sheff swoons to “The ghost of some rock ‘n’ roll fan/ with her heart opened up/ I wanna tell her her love isn’t lost.” And “Title Track,” a song that stretches into almost mock-epic territory, stays grounded with humorous lines like, “A Hollywood Babylon bike-a-thon for break dancers,” and, “But if you’ve got the cap/ I’m ready to bust my ass.”
Elsewhere, other art is the subject. “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe,” in which Sheff complains of the lack of narrative structure in everyday life, is a slow builder. It starts with a Cars-nicking riff, soon joined by his voice (here sounding much like another great young songwriter, Conor Oberst). His tone gets increasingly urgent, finally culminating in him declaring, “Hey, I’d watch it!” of a hypothetical movie he’s been describing. “Savannah Smiles” also takes film — this time pornography — as its subject. Sheff inhabits the father of Shannon Wilsey, who went by the name Savannah as an adult film star before committing suicide after a disfiguring car accident. It’s the one moment the album tips into treacle.
Finally the burgeoning poet gets around to poetry itself. “John Allyn Smith Sails” tells the story of another suicide, that of poet John Berryman. He finds hope in the sad act, a release from the pain of life, with Berryman knowing he won’t fully die off because of the work he left behind. And then, like Berryman’s life, Stage Names is over too quickly. It serves to remind you that with so many albums out there, to find one you actually wish would go on longer is to truly find a gem.