Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2008: Number 7

Okkervil River's The Stage Names, our number one album of 2007, highlighted Will Sheff's ability to isolate, pick over the putrid flesh and bones of and ultimately humanise the mixed feelings, mixed messages and downright poetry in "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". The Stand-Ins is the follow-on to The Stage Names in concept, execution and even literalness - Starry Stairs is about the same person, Shannon Wilsey, as Savannah Smiles but from her own defensive but regretful perspective, while humanising closer about a doomed creative John Allyn Smith Sails is superceded by humanising closer about a doomed creative Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979 (Campbell being the real name of Jobriath, failed hype glam rocker who lived in the titular hotel's roof apartment). Even the cover art forms a complete picture if lined up beneath that of the parent record's sleeve. The impression is not of a load of impressionistic toss-offs, though, but of a full and focused piece of work, even the three sub-minute instrumental connecting pieces, musically largely a slight regression to the country-rock of Down The River Of Golden Dreams, and further excavations of Sheff's themes to conclusion. And it's got a song about Blue Tulip Rose Read on.

This time, though, it's at least partly self-examination in which the patient is found wanting. Lost Coastlines borrows A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene's Motownish beat but finds that hand didn't exist outside Sheff's mind. Jonathan Meiburg, keyboard player also of Shearwater (qv), lends his rich pipes as a counterpoint to Sheff's less cultured wail as he bemoans the fact that against his will he's on... what? Case study would suggest the pop life, possibly their own, losing one's way but keeping going, as the last proper words put it "every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and wide/Well we have lost our way, nobody's gonna say it outright". Meiburg's contributions seem to act as the voice inside Sheff's head telling him to keep going; the fact Meiburg has since left to concentrate on his other project puts all sorts of new angles on that. But at the same time Sheff proves capable of aiming barbs at those who overreach towards the skies. Singer Songwriter takes a shot at a pampered, preening cultural mayfly, while on Pop Lie Sheff suggests we're implicit for projecting wiseness onto "the liar who lied in his pop song". Again, can we seperate art from artist? Similarly, On Tour With Zykos catches up with a character from The Stage Names, this time the groupie-shagging desperate frontman who starts by being thrown out in the morning and ends with the girl, who Sheff is singing from the perspective of, admitting "god knows I just want to make this white lie big enough to climb inside With you" and consequently wondering "who you got your hooks in tonight, was she happy to be hooked and on your arm?", knowing that that's life. Bruce Wayne Campbell etc. leaves us initially bleakly, resigned to being left behind by times and trends, before being taken away by the "morning starship" of one of his songs "til he forgets the ground". It's tempting to state Sheff and his characters (but of course they're all characters, aren't they?) are resigned to their fates - ageing, loveless, deception - but that would suggest he sees no hope for them.

Lost Coastlines

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