Okkervil River’s Will Sheff: Man with a Thousand Voices

[Editor’s Note: The following essays preview tonight’s Okkervil River show at Slowdown with Hundred Visions. Buy tickets here.]

by Jacob Zlomke, Tim Lundy and Chance Solem-Pfeifer

When Okkervil River frontman and songwriter Will Sheff admits 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium is a more personal record for him than ever before, we mostly have to take his word for it.

Yes, the title refers to a boarding school Sheff attended in his youth and the vividly imagistic album art serves as a surrealist map of his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire. But when it comes to instances of autobiography on Okkervil River albums between 2002 and 2013, lines are obscured at every point. What’s perceived as “real” could be entirely fictive, and these songs on The Silver Gymnasium appeal to the same sense of pop culture obsession as previous conceptual albums (The Stage Names and The Stand Ins) which said nothing explicitly about Sheff at all.

Is the reference to Kevin Costner’s 1997 post-apocalyptic flop The Postman on the new song “Pink Slips” somehow more personal than Sheff rattling off film editing tropes in 2007’s “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene”?

In these short essays, we ride with you down the current of Okkervil River’s seven-album discography across six songs we found emblematic of Sheff’s songwriting. You might not say his voice is a chameleon — it is typically always loud and verbose and urgent. Because to say a writer is capable of many pitch-perfect tones and dialects means we understand it very well. No, he is not the folk rock version of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Rather, it’s a voice that calls into question what we know about narrators and authors — sharing more in common with Nabokov than Johnny Cash — breaking and bending rules of reliability and identity that might make the careful listener feel both thrilled and a little unsafe.

“Westfall” — Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2002)

words by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

What separates “Westfall” from other alt-country, character-based murder ballads is not the ballad, but the treatment of the murder. On the song from Okkervil River’s debut LP Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, Sheff steps into the mind of a semi-fictional killer, modeled after one of the perpetrators of the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders.

The songwriter’s take is not (as it so often seems to be for murder ballad singers) justification. It’s not deposition, or even explanation, really. The song is short on detail for why the young man killed a girl in the woods with his so-called best friend. It centers, instead, on his confusion as to why news outlets are sticking cameras in his face while he’s on trial. Other than that perturbation, it doesn’t seem that anyone wronged the narrator at all.

“Looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but evil don’t look like anything.”

In one way, this mandolin-driven country song seems like an odd and ironic vehicle for purporting the meaninglessness of iconography and symbolism. Here, Sheff and company play and sing in a genre which adores and reveres those ideas. But this rather existential piece is actually one of Okkervil River’s most focused lyrical outings, a song that is mostly a set-up for its final minute, while the first five are exposition there to demonstrate only that the murderer possesses a very dry and blank take on what he did. A sociopath’s distant confession.

The killer’s only real stream of personal commentary comes at the moment of sudden execution:

“And when I killed her, it was so easy, that I wanted to kill her again.”

Sheff told the press about his use of the Yogurt Shop Murders as a template: “I fictionalised the narrative because that’s the only way I could write it from the first person perspective and feel OK about singing it.”

Is he suggesting that evil, in all its shapelessness, is merely about ease of access? About sheer simplicity and fragility? Fitting then, that “Westfall” with its repeated, relatively dull Okkervil lines — “I ain’t coming back again” and “she ain’t coming back again” — is probably one of the plainest songs in the band’s entire discography. The payoff is all in one lyrical peak. While you’ve spent five minutes with this voice of cold-blooded guilt, no one can be sure he’s anything bigger, mythical or satanic. Apathy is more frightening.

“The War Criminal Rises and Speaks” — Down the River of Golden Dreams (2003)

words by Tim Lundy

It would be hopelessly inaccurate to reduce Okkervil River’s music to Will Sheff’s songwriting, but there’s no denying that such dense, intelligent lyrics as found in “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks” carry weight regardless of musical setting.

While the song from Okkervil’s sophomore 2003 album Down the River of Golden Dreams presents a compelling meditation on its own — Sheff muses on an impersonal tragedy that swells out of banality and is quickly swallowed by it again — within Okkervil’s entire catalog of work it can’t help but stand out as a reflection on Sheff’s songwriting itself. When, at the song’s halfway point, Sheff slides effortlessly from describing the crimes of the titular war criminal to channeling his pleading screams amidst a swelling horn climax, the effect is uncanny: as though a voice “not of this time” truly punctures the song’s clean, repetitive melody with a desperate appeal for redemption.

Though Sheff’s subsumption beneath such untimely voices is often subtler in other songs, this redemptive glow constantly surrounds his storytelling, as he grants voices of varying degrees of fictionality a final chance to speak and be heard.

Of course, this glow is just that: the illusory shimmer of polished storytelling. As the reverberations of the war criminal’s voice dissolve in the song’s final verse, Sheff takes on a sarcastic tone, reassuring listeners that the war criminal certainly won’t rise up behind their own eyes “and take wild control.” This closing reminder that the song’s resonance is just an effect of the listener’s self reflected back through the performer is a hallmark of many Okkervil River songs, calling into question one’s ability to ever really understand any voice but one’s own.

“Black” — Black Sheep Boy (2005)

words by Jacob Zlomke

If you want to talk Will Sheff’s character songs, you can’t ignore 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, Okkveril River’s third and, up to that point, most ambitious entry. The album, inspired by a Tim Hardin song of the same name, loosely follows Black Sheep Boy as a route to explore themes of abuse, betrayal, drug addiction and heartbreak.

Where darkness creeps in on the corners of Down the River of Golden Dreams and Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, Sheff opens the floodgates on Black Sheep Boy. The listening experience is a willful immersion in the most troubling human emotions: hate, despair, bitter, violence, envy.

Throughout the album, Sheff wears them like Bruce Wayne wears Batman: he’s undertaken this desolation for a larger purpose and is disturbed at how well it suits him.

It’s perhaps never more apparent than on “Black,” an instrumentally triumphant rock song about a girl molested by her father. The father goes onto have another family later in life and the song’s narrator, a friend of the girls, wants reconciliation: “But if I could tear his throat and spill his blood between my jaws and erase his name out for good, don’t you know that I would? Don’t you realize that I wouldn’t pause, that I would cut him down with my claws?”

The girl wants to forget it, to not even dignify his existence by speaking about it.

But the narrator sings desperately. “Let me help you out, though I know that I can’t help anyhow. When I watch you, I’m proud, when I tell you twice before you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours.”

Sheff begins the song with some semblance of emotional control, but by the end, he’s spewing unhinged, helpless vitriol. It’s unadulterated hate, made heartening and relatable, and therefore all the more unsettling for the listener, by the place from which it comes: desperate love.

“Plus Ones” — The Stage Names (2007)

words by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

I always get the impression that on some level Will Sheff might hate the fact that “Plus Ones,” a song which adds one number to a cavalcade of numerically-themed rock songs, sounds like it was written so effortlessly, the fact that he’s been lauded for writing it.

“Plus Ones” is pure pastiche, adding numbers in a way that’s very clever but is surrounded by fill-in lyrics that indicate no one wants to hear these once-adjusted songs. While the song has an obvious organizing principle, comically and universally referential, it embodies the most absurd breaking point for The Stage Names, a record which, were it not for the bouncing and melodic rock songs, might unravel into an unceremonious pile of celebrity photographs and crumpled pages from Rolling Stone back issues.

Intentionally so. Sheff’s take on the record is one in which the original signs and icons on which his songs riff are all but lost and buried in a storm of imitations, deconstructions and additions:

“I wanted the record to exist in a universe of reference of signals, signs and bullshit.”

“Plus Ones” brushes up against a line where the quantity and delivery of the drivel threatens to undergo a chemical change into absolute virtuosity, but only brushing. Sheff’s writing voice never abandons its distaste for what it’s able to do to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” “Sixteen Candles,” “99 Luftballons” and a train of others. As a listmaker, the voice of “Plus Ones” is part gung ho songwriter and part jaded rock critic — at the same time, over-eager to engage in conversation with formative songs and to reduce everything to its derivation.

Now, the acerbic bite of Sheff’s words — ”51st way to leave your lover / admittedly, it doesn’t seem to be as a gentle or as clean as all the others / leaving a scar” — elevates the song past a concept that could just as easily have been conceived by the mind of Weird Al Yankovic. But that’s probably a contemporary that this version of Sheff’s voice would appreciate, someone so inundated by pop culture, so hopelessly addicted to low art, that a laundry list of name drops is a plane as near to genius as he can imagine.

“Calling and Not Calling My Ex” — The Stand Ins (2008)

words by Jacob Zlomke

Sibling albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins find Okkervil River almost wholly concerned with performance art — primarily film and music — and how they can control, foster and destroy all kinds of relationships.

On “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” from The Stand Ins, the narrator laments a loss that coincides with his partner’s success in the film industry. But here, the woman’s success as a film director functions less as source material for parting ways and more as a framing device.

The narrator had been fired around the same time that his partner’s “first offer had arrived.” He was bitter and incredulous once, when the two first split up, and said “Yeah right, when you insisted that I’d visit, that you’d write,” caught up in a wake of sudden emotion.

Now, some years later, he’s achieved some clarity. He sees her on magazine covers, on television. As cinema often feeds on sentimentality and nostalgia for its effect, the narrator recalls their final Christmas Eve as a time when he was happy, something he threw away. He can’t help but see her success and consider their time together and feel “really stupid now for ever having said goodbye.”

But it’s not because of her success that he regrets his relationship’s finality, it’s only her presence on his television and in his magazine articles that keeps the wound from scabbing over and healing. Otherwise, ostensibly, she’s still the same person whom the narrator loved: “You look the same on TV as when you were mine.”

It’s the story of loving someone before their fame and then facing that fact every day, by way of that person’s ubiquitousness, three years later in this song’s case.

“Down Down the Deep River” — The Silver Gymnasium (2013)

words by Tim Lundy

The themes flowing through The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil’s latest record, are familiar ones for the band: nostalgia, memory, desire, remorse. Likewise, the metaphorical vehicles of songs such as “Down Down the Deep River” are far from new: as the band’s name suggests, rivers, water, and sailing appear as consistent frames for Will Sheff’s writing. The subject matter of the album, however, purports to be new: For the first time the “deep river” of memory here is explicitly Sheff’s own, and the jangling melodious whitewater of this track, as with the whole album, swirls around half-forgotten childhood tragedies and traumas.

Sheff has recounted elsewhere that “Down Down the Deep River” was cut down to a still-lengthy six minutes from a twenty-minute song that he wrote in a single sitting, pouring out verse upon recollection-filled verse. Indeed, the cathartic momentum of the song sweeps listeners forward even though the full geography of the river never comes fully into focus. There are various voices here too: Sheff’s present self talks back and forth with the ten-year old he used to be, both trying to make sense of circumstances that neither can fully hope to understand. And the same tensions arise here as in Sheff’s past lyrics, but more intensely: the past Sheff hopes to redeem is his own, and his attempt to make sense of his own memories calls into question the ability of the self to understand even its own voice.

Hearing Sheff’s “own” voices for the first time is surprisingly familiar, reminding us not only how closely he has inhabited different characters in the past, but also how closely they have inhabited him.

Tim Lundy is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Jacob Zlomke is HN’s staff writer. And Chance Solem-Pfeifer is HN’s managing editor. Reach them all via chancesp@hearnebraska.org.