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.
Okkervil River – “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”
Directed by Margaret Brown