Okkervil River
The Stand Ins

4/5 Stars

Okkervil River’s The Stand Ins will be relegated to second-class status before most people even hear it. That’s because the band’s leader, Will Sheff, has variously pushed it as a sort of sequel, second disc or leftovers collection from last year’s The Stage Names. Faithfully, the new album resides in a musical habitat near its predecessor, making the pair of records a spiritual couplet beyond their visibly congruent covers and titles. But since The Stage Names has now emerged — over a year after its release — as perhaps the best album of 2007, it casts a boundless shadow from which its little brother is unlikely to ever emerge, even if the two share extended sequences of DNA. Like Amnesiac after Kid A, detractors will almost certainly deem The Stand Ins an unworthy, afterthought effort. But they will be ignoring the eccentric personal depth that only this record possesses.

At his most basic, Will Sheff is a balladeer. Regardless of what tempo, rage, intensity or ferocity he propels his songs to, his convoluted accounts, ranging from introverted identity crisis to explicit murder recollections, value narrative above all else. And so it goes on The Stand Ins. Only this time around, it seems he’s flipped over his lens and decided to document himself more than ever before. And what the audience sees is fuzzy cinéma vérité of a man conflicted.

It’s odd that on “Lost Coastlines” Sheff would dress up despair like “Packed and all eyes turned in / No one to see on the key, no one waving for me / Just the shoreline receding” with manic bass, banjos and “la la la” vocals, but he does just that on the song about his touring experiences. In the honestly named “On Tour With Zykos,” Sheff covers the same subject but reverses his approach. He appropriately opts for elegiac piano furnishings, but as his complaints grow more obtuse (“Another day lost and gone… I go home, take off clothes, smoke a bowl / Watch a whole TV movie”), the roots of his bruised psyche become more enigmatic.

From there, it’s not a stretch to extrapolate that the titular character Sheff confidently chastises in the jangly barnstomp “Singer Songwriter” might in fact be Sheff himself. Singing something like, “You’ve got taste, you’ve got taste / What a waste that that’s all that you have” shouldn’t be beyond a self-doubting artist. And it’s this same pessimism that brings the new wave triumph pop of “Pop Lie” down from its emotional joyride.

Since The Stage Names comes off as so Sheff-centric, the most pressing question then becomes: Is Sheff serious about the suicidal subjects in “Starry Stairs” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979” as proxies for himself? Hopefully not. And given the enthusiasm (usually not of the angry kind) that his music and live performances beam with, it’s anomalous that his lyrics would be riddled with such gloom. Tellingly, this album doesn’t sound like enraged heartache; it’s more or less poppy folk-rock.

So maybe Sheff’s true aim was to simply craft beaten-down character sketches. But by doing so in such a troubling and vague way, he at worst performs impenetrable portrayals of the roles he wrote. Sure, there are innuendos of breakup (of both the girlfriend and band variety) all over the record, but The Stand Ins is defined by the fact that it got so up close to Sheff that it was unable to keep him in focus. In “On Tour With Zykos” Sheff laments, “I was supposed to be writing / the most beautiful poems / and completely revealing / divine mysteries up close.” He failed to do so, and that’s why The Stand Ins is so engaging.

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