Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 1

Two things about the booklet that accompanies The Stage Names: the lyrics to each song are written out as prose, and it starts with a quote from the short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya that gave the band its name. The quote sees the progenitor consider the downfall of a latterly obscure singer he is obsessed with, which in the story turns into a treatise into the difference between art and its artist. Okkervil River leader Will Sheff, a sometime writer and journalist himself, has always written to a literate theme with a storytelling bent, the band's previous album being based on the characters and situations in Tim Hardin's song Black Sheep Boy, from which it took its name, and this album's umbrella issue revolves around much the same set of circumstances - the differences and contradictions between private lives and public faces and facades, people in the margins or in denial as to their actual current worth. Sheff's lyrics have always been symbolically poetic and gratifyingly involving, and this theme has brought the best out of him, approaching it with renewed vigour using case studies, pop culture references and thoughts presumably picked up in this showbiz life. Without the backing it'd be mere overwrought intelligensia, but the rest of the band have similarly picked up their game, sounding more upbeat, free thinking and playful than ever. Maybe it's the influence of the post-Funeral new anthemry, but there's something quite joyful about the album's sound even when it's plunging the depths of human interaction. It's almost like a continual soundtrack to an imaginary Short Cuts-style portmanteau film, focusing on characters suffering their own slings and arrows.

And indeed, the opening words are "it's just a bad movie, where there's no crying". Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe sets the album's stall out admirably, a confessional, articulate and vocally committed piece examining the on/offstage disparity aware that he's under no illusion that this is the be-all and end-all, the subject acting like he's the big star in a film but "it’s just a life story, so there’s no climax/No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX", but there's no fimlic twist or happy ending because "a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie". The band, six others on this album including longtime associate and Shearwater leader Jonathan Meiburg, respond in kind with enormous piano-driven dynamics, rocking out more than previous records like Spector producing Arcade Fire, complete with "woo-woo" backing vocals. Unless It's Kicks is driven by a big repetitive riffs around which builds an electric folkie's lament to how music takes the listener over ("what picks you up from down unless it's tricks") - pretty easy on this account by this stage - and how to lay your image of the artist on top of the actuality. It's meta-songwriting that could go and has gone horribly wrong in lesser hands, but Sheff is too aware and too far round the block in a touring, underselling heartfelt rock band to believe any less, and as he says, "What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan/Floating up from the stands With her heart opened up/And I want to tell her your love isn't lost". A Hand To Take A Hold Of The Scene mentions camera close-ups and "as he speaks his last line a thought falls from his mind and I pick it up right through the TV", again life as supposedly lived in public, over a Motown bassline, Spoon shuffle and horn part. We abruptly shift gear and focus on the fully sketched realisations of Savannah Smiles, which you couldn't indie dance to if you tried but has a open hearted delicacy that makes it seem of a piece with what surrounds it, about a father realising his daughter has grown up and away out of his control. (Sheff has revealed it's about the porn actress Savannah, who committed suicide due to depression, failed relationships and a car crash causing facial injuries.) Plus Ones uses the language of rock both in the title and in references to 97th tears, nine miles high, the hundredth luftballoon, the 51st way to leave your love, "the fourth time you were a lady" and so forth. Again, this could be too clever-clever pop culture aligning, but really it's mere decoration to illustrate emotional collapse. A Girl In Port has no such sideline, merely an extended sailor metaphor and an understanding directness, soulfulness and elegance that stays just this side of MOR, probably the closest the album comes to their preceding albums' sound, as Sheff picks over those loved and left behind. Then it's back in the van for You Can't Hold THe Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man, but this band are washed up, drugged out and being told by a jaded fan/groupie that "I'm done with looking back/And you look your age/Which is 37, by the way, and not 28...our silver screen affair/It weighs less to me than air", meeting it head-on with a refashioned rock riff 101. Title Track is the breakdown ensuing, Neil Young metaphysical heartsearching that thinks about becoming an epic and at the last minute decides against it after all.

It's final track John Allyn Smith Sails, although not an epic either, that really brings the ship home. John Allyn Smith was the real name of John Berryman, a major 20th century American poet whose depression led him to jump off a bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. (Coincidentally, the Hold Steady's Stuck Between Stations is about the same subject.) Sheff's reading being that Berryman became the adult he never wanted to be, and when the song turns into a cathartic quoting of Sloop John B it's like a death march. Here, then, is reality intruding on a songwriter's fiction, a set of cinematic images that don't, as a more famous band once put it, urge you not to put your life in the hands of a rock'n'roll band but go some way towards encouraging it, as long as you realise that it's not all powder and greasepaint. It's an album that starts with a huge emotional punch and only reveals its lyrical density and mystery further with every listen, self-doubting and rhetorically down but coated with a lust for life that's more literal than, for once, musically metaphorical. Someone inform Robert Altman, we might just have him his next portmanteau project in simulacrum here.

LISTEN ON: A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene
WATCH ON: Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe

The full list, with links to each post


Matt said...

Wouldn't it require a Buffy-style resurrection before Robert Altman could be informed of anything? Or have I missed a particularly important point?

Simon said...

Nothing to say his estate couldn't carry on his hypothetical work.

Matt said...

That's true. All you'd need is a reputable medium and he could direct via seance, or something.

I have denigrated the tense ending of the STN chart. I'm sorry.