Where Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff really breaks new ground is in his recognition of the bathos and self-absorption required to fuel a song that resonates anymore—what bastards his kind must be. The hardest to suss out of the New Literary set (the shticky Hold Steady, garish Decemberists, and wordsmith’s-wordsmith Mountain Goats), Okkervil River has more in common with Cursive, another stage-obsessed indie faction that bemoaned comparable success five years ago with writer’s-block-blues laments like “Art Is Hard” and “Butcher the Song.” Sheff doesn’t spare his songs either, and it works only insofar as he refuses to get personal. Maybe 2007’s The Stage Names attempted to build self-glorifying credos with “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” and “Unless It’s Kicks,” but he quickly pushed the references to Savannah and John Berryman out front, embarrassed by the thought of using his own rootsy six-piece as a personal totem or reflexive tragic hero for too long.
The Stand-Ins, reportedly taped at the same time as Stage Names, is an improvement, not least because Sheff punishes himself (rather humorously) for the sin of relying on tragic heroes at all. If you believe the juicy excoriations of “Singer Songwriter” are sincere (“You’re keen to downplay/But quick to betray with one well-turned-out wave of your hand/You come from wealth/What a bitch they didn’t give you much else”), you can still dream he’s actually talking to Colin Meloy. Cool as the conceit may be, he just hates his new subjects too much for the album to break yet a fifth wall to comment on his own exploitation. Note the Gatsby-esque typeface of the booklet, as well as the dedication these folk-tinged (but not quite) songs show in prying apart the rock-star myth: In his most excellent song to date, “Pop Lie,” Sheff warns us that the creators of our favorite “sweetly sung and succinctly stated” tunes are no less full of shit because we can’t resist them. That one’s rather sweetly sung and succinctly stated.
Okkervil River play Webster Hall October 6 and 7