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Okkervil River

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Okkervil River lead singer Will Sheff cannot relate to you—or to me, for that matter.

He would be the last guy you’d want to call were you to have a pesky, unknown, yet recognizable melody—which so happens to be the refrain to that song about the darkness of matinees, refectories, and Terry Wogan that you heard when your friend put his iPod on shuffle the other nightshifting around upstairs. Forget about getting any clarity from him. He’s never heard of Franz Ferdinand. He’ll quickly rattle off others that he swears he’s never treated to a listen. He’s never heard anything by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Fiery Furnaces, TV on the Radio, or The Bravery. Oh, and here’s a big what-the-fuck: he’s never, ever heard a Modest Mouse song.

“Like I said, I’m sort of out of the loop,” Sheff said. “I just hear what other people say about them.”

But really, what does he need with a song off Blueberry Boat or Good News for People Who Like Bad News? We need them because we can’t come remotely close to writing such brilliant songs about Charles Bukowski—ultrasounds to lives within lives, in which it’s possible to hear a second and third heart beating, just by holding them tighter and listening with our eyes shut. We can’t do without songs like that. Sheff can already do all of those things himself. He needs no stencil or guidebook, no example to slide a sheet of carbon paper between for a trace-over. His ideas sleep alone, grow alone, and live alone, apart from those of his would-be peers.

“I know the big famous bands and I know my friends’ bands, but we really aren’t coming from any of the same places,” Sheff said. “I see what they do, but it’s not like we’re on the same team.”

The sleepy-eyed Texan was being told by others of the stylistic similarities between his songs and those of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. He’d never heard anything the Portland band—and current touring mates—had ever done. When he finally did hear the band—before they became Pitchfork darlings and four-star-getters in Rolling Stone—he wrote Meloy and told him he liked what the antiquarian was doing.

“I respect Colin’s work and he respects mine. It’s similar, but parallel,” Sheff said. He can’t even totally relate to Colin Meloy!?! How the hell could he ever relate to us?

When Okkervil River released Down the River of Golden Dreams two years ago, Sheff showed a great ability in creating thoughtful songs about hardship and the turmoil living deeply within hearts and bones. Taken as a whole, they made an aural montage of dark dreams and mystical turbulence, not unlike In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the eerie, but beautiful master-work of Neutral Milk Hotel’s eccentric Jeff Mangum. If crapping on the living room carpet makes a bad dog, then crapping on Down the River of Golden Dreams made a bad person in 2003. It was received with lasting hugs and offered honorary spots on countless year-end lists as an epic piece. Voicing any sort of negative peep about it could have caught you the steeliest of stares and cost you some serious cool points.

But next to sophomore album Black Sheep Boy—released on Jagjaguwar the first week in April—it is nothing. It was just Sheff warming his hands, tinkering, and testing the winds. Black Sheep Boy, 11 tracks inspired by the imagery of 1960s folkie Tim Hardin’s song of the same name, showcases a Sheff infused with more spirit and ingenuity. He wails in Black—“Though I told you twice before/That you should wreck his life/The way that he wrecked yours”—like he was John Davis asking us who sucked out the feeling. He then speaks to us, so eloquently, detailing all of the beauties that come from inside sorrows. It’s amazing that pain can bring such wonder.

“A lot of people say that Okkervil River songs are so depressing, but that’s not at all how I see it or how I intend it. There is a lot of joy in my songs. I’m doing the best that I can to convince people that it’s great to be alive. Well, not great, but it’s good to be alive,” Sheff said. “To me, art is the thing that sustains me. It’s all I care about in a certain way. It’s my bread and butter. It has to be to the point where you’d rather die if you didn’t write this or that song. If it’s not, then you should step aside because there are other people who believe that. It’s so depressing, the art that was created just because…for no other reason. It should be a life or death thing.”

Sheff, you get the feeling, has merely scratched the surface. He has not yet written his In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, despite what critics said about Down. He will be re-inventing himself for a long time, unlike Mangum, who, since the Aeroplane tour has not performed publicly for seven years. His mysterious living—working on bizarre sound mish-mashes on his computer and attending Bulgarian folk music festivals with a field recorder—has led to rampant speculation about the recluse. Not surprisingly, the person to whom Sheff may be most able to relate musically doesn’t interest him.

“I don’t really have any curiosity about him. We know friends of his and we’ve had run-ins with him. You go through a period of wanting to know who that guy is. But I’ve come to understand that he lives in the same world of Subways, department stores, planes, Styrofoam, and crap like that,” he said. “When someone makes something that you love, you really want to tell that person how much you love it. And when you make something that you want people to love, you want people to tell you that they love it. But I’ve had that happen a little bit and it’s weird. It doesn’t work right and you don’t know why.”
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