Stripped of the purloined loam of 2005’s Black Sheep Boy (which took its iconography from a Tim Hardin song), Austin’s Okkervil River turn out to be more like My Chemical Romance than we thought.
The Stage Names shares the frenzy of pre–Black Sheep songs like “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks,” and if it isn’t as monolithic as the album that spurred the band’s rise to Believer-subscriber prominence, it does contain several fine examples of hyper-articulate hysteria. Frontman Will Sheff likes making a screaming mess of the kind of fastidious rhymes that Stephin Merritt would intone, and like Merritt, indulges in some pomo dabbling on the great “Plus Ones,” which mentions “100 luftballoons,” “eight Chinese brothers,” and—most touchingly—a 51st way to leave your lover, which “doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”
If Okkervil River’s sonic seriousness is sometimes wearying—the band plays classic rock only slightly less insistently than the Hold Steady—their words bring a smile for their deftness. The Stage Names‘ big subjects are the numbed hearts of travelers and the muddled heads of those who hear and tell stories, but these aren’t centers of gravity like Black Sheep‘s murderer; they’re arch motifs rather than howling ghosts beneath every song. And often it’s only the weird humor in Sheff’s drawl that keeps things from crossing into bathos. Near the end of the suicide narrative “John Allyn Smith Sails,” he deadpans the record’s central line: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”
Okkervil River play Webster Hall September 28, websterhall.com