Friday, January 27, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1616: Okkervil River

This week I bought Wil Sheff’s solo album and, as though on cue, the dice gods rolled me up one of his albums with the band Okkervil River. Here it is!

Disc 1616 is…Down the River of Golden Dreams

Artist: Okkervil River

Year of Release: 2003

What’s up with the Cover?  If this is what takes place on the River of Golden Dreams I’d hate to see what happens on the river of Silver Nightmares.

Today’s event on the river features an octopus so aggressively devouring some dude that his face is pressing through its skin like some kind of rubber mask from hell.

Or maybe this is not a predatory attack but just what this half-man/half-octopus creature looks like as it wanders the waves looking for people to horrify with its visage.

Consider me horrified.

How I Came To Know It: I have been an Okkervil River fan for years, but had always thought their discography started with 2005’s “Black Sheep Boy”. Not so! There were two albums prior, and “Down the River of Golden Dreams” was the second. I discovered this when I saw a used copy of it for sale at my local record store. I bought it and hoped for the best and…here we are.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine full length Okkervil River albums, which is all of them, not including the previously mentioned Will Sheff solo album. I also have two EPs. Of the nine LPs, this one fits neatly into a 5,6,7, run with “The Silver Gymnasium” (6) and “Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See” (7). It is a photo finish but I’m giving the tie to “Down the River…” because of one song, which we’ll visit in detail below.

Rating: 3 stars

You either love or hate Wil Sheff’s mournful warble. If you like it, then there is a good chance you’ll do what I did and dig back through Okkervil River’s catalogue and unearthed every single early gem – including his sophomore album, “Down the River of Golden Dreams”.

This is proto-Okkervil River. The pure stuff, pre-Black Sheep Boy when they became the darling of the obscure indie folk-rock set (well, one of the darlings). I do not profess to know them then, and so I explored this record from the perspective of someone who started at the sea and went exploring upriver from there.

From this perspective, this record feels relatively stripped down and stark, even though it is anything but. On the contrary, much of “Down the River…” is atmospheric and full of sound. Even on moody tracks like “For the Enemy” when the song is mostly Sheff, an organ and a bit of drum, there is a fullness to this sound that envelopes you. Later the song adds a bit of soft guitar but even then everything has space in between, and yet…not. There’s room, yes, but each instrument reverberates and washes over the others without creating interference.

As with other Okkervil River records, the band tells tales from the varied perspectives of characters. Sometimes it feels autobiographical, but more often than not it is Sheff descending deep into another person so completely you lose him. With the ghostly quality to his voice, it is easy to imagine it keens across a graveyard, telling other people’s stories long gone into time or distance.

One such tale, “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks” is one of Okkervil River’s most compelling and troubling songs. The story is of a person who committed heinous war crimes while trying to survive some terrible never-defined conflict zone. It starts quiet and slow, and you can imagine the titular character’s chair scraping the floor as he rises to tell his tale. At no point does he defend his crimes, but he does challenge the listener to understand and see him as a person:

“Now he's rising and not denying.
His hands are shaking, but he's not crying.
And he's saying "How did I climb
out of a life so boring into that moment?
Please stop ignoring the heart inside,
oh you readers at home!
While you gasp at my bloody crimes,
please take the time
to make your heart my home”

It is a big ask, coming so soon after a visceral telling of his terrible deeds, and as Sheff sings it his vocals rise in both tone and emotional intensity.

On their previous record, Okkervil River takes on the persona of a child murderer in “Westfall”. In that song, the killer is unrepentant and resigned to their own evil, but here the narrator calls for mercy, and leaves the listener with a heap of conflict, as you process the complexities of justice and mercy, rage and empathy. It is a hell of a journey.

The album ends with “Seas Too Far To Reach” which has a country honky-tonk feel. After all the angst of the ten songs that precede it, appears to be a perfect palate cleanser, but listen closely and you’ll pick up dying parent themes, depression and a desperate need for love and connection. In that way, it is the perfect summation of the record, which sways gently on the surface, but invites all sorts of complexity if you have the fortitude to dive in.

Best tracks: It Ends With a Fall, For the Enemy, The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, Dead Faces, Seas Too Far To Reach

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