Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Okkervil River - The Stage NamesOkkervil RiverThe Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)

The only downfall about 2007 is that there have already been so many contenders for album of the year, it’s going to be downright sad when the winner is eventually is named. There’s going to be a plethora of runner ups that you’ll probably wished were number one, depending on the day.

Okkervil River’s fourth album, The Stage Names, is my pick for album of the year at this moment. While my pick may still change this year, this album has all of the qualifications of an album worthy of that title.


There is no better example of this than the last song on side one (more on that later), “Plus Ones,” a song that adds a digit to your favorite numeric tunes (“96 Tears,” “99 Luftballoons,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” etc.) before namedropping a Tom Jones favorite (“Stripped away by days of being hailed as your highness / And ‘What’s New Pussycat’ as you were once a lioness / They cut your claws out”) and whipping out the horn section. Main River navigator Will Sheff takes a step over the line of simply being clever to being in another league entirely when he begins the next phrase with the word “kitten.”

A pedal steel signals the arrival of side two with the incredible “A Girl In Port,” a song that provides fair-weather female suitors with a bit of sentimental perspective when it comes down to the opposite sex: “I’m not the lady killing sort / Enough to hurt the girl in port.” In other words, Sheff probably knows the name of every one night stand he’s had and his inspiration for even being in a rock band is more likely to be the thing between your ears instead of the thing between your legs.

By the time you’ve resigned yourself to the reality that The Stage Names is one of those very special albums, one that even transcends “album of the year” nominations entirely, the band unfolds the defining statement that closes the record, “John Allyn Smith Sails.” Of course, the stage name for John Allyn Smith was John Berryman who’s own suicide attempt was as unsuccessful as the one depicted during the “Sloop John B” coda. Berryman missed the fucking water entirely, which makes the lift of that aquatic Beach Boys song so hilarious.

Tremendously sequenced and conservatively timed, The Stage Names is a shining example of a band that has set out with the honorable intention of making a defining album. The album’s nine songs wonderfully create the natural ebb-and-flow of a classic album and it’s just a few points shy of actually being one of those classic albums.

There are a few examples scattered across The Stage Names where Sheff overworks his vocals, creating some unnecessary theatrics when the rest of the band has already done the job for him. Their emotive performances, combined with Sheff’s cinematic lyrics make this an album that lives up to it own big screen themes.

In a perfect world it would also be the album that puts Okkervil River’s own name up in lights.

MP3: Okkervil River – “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”

Okkervil River – “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”

Directed by Margaret Brown

8 thoughts on “Okkervil River – The Stage Names”

  1. Really enjoy this album quite a bit. Great review. I’m not sure it equals the complexity of Black Sheep Boy but it certainly qualifies as one of this year’s best thus far.

  2. “Of course, the stage name for John Allyn Smith was John Berryman who’s own suicide attempt was as unsuccessful as the one depicted during the “Sloop John B” coda.”

    Actually, the suicide attempt was successful, and I doubt he would have cared whether he missed the water or not, as long as it worked.

    As for the album, I loved it at first, but some of it started feeling a little precious on the 15th or 16th listen, at least compared to Black Sheep Boy. In the sense that BSB feels like an angry high school kid venting his emotions, tSN feels like a kid who’s discovered late night BS sessions at the local coffee shop.

    Having said all that, I agree it’s still up with the year’s best so far.

  3. Actually, the suicide attempt was successful, and I doubt he would have cared whether he missed the water or not, as long as it worked.

    Yer right: the end result was achieved and it probably didn’t matter to Berryman. I was lost in the water analogy more than considering the outcome of the actions.

    I thought it was funny, the “I feel so broke up” line, considering what his body went through when he landed.

  4. “I thought it was funny, the “I feel so broke up” line, considering what his body went through when he landed.”

    I had the same reaction. You have to listen with a kind of awe to the way Scheff pulls the whole story together with a Beach Boys song of all things.

  5. For the record, “Sloop John B” is way, way older than the Beach Boys. According to wikipedia, It was originally a traditional West Indies folk song, possibly recorded earliest by The Weavers under the title “Wreck of the John B”, the song taken from a collection by Carl Sandburg (1927). Alan Lomax made a field recording of the song in Nassau, 1935, under the title “Histe Up the John B. Sail”.

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