2002. “Yes is my favorite answer.”
The band Okkervil River formed in 1998 in Austin, Texas. The three founding members, Will Sheff (singer-songwriter), Seth Warren (bass and mandolin), and Zach Thomas (drums), met in high school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and reunited after college in Austin — my hometown. Their first gig was in 1999, and accordion player/keyboardist/ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg joined the band that same year.
The first time I heard them was a couple years later, when I was 19. The song was “Red,” from their first full-length album, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See. At the time, I spent most of my waking hours with a dude named Brian — one of the dozen short-lived, platonic, codependent friendships that dotted my young adulthood. I can’t remember which one of us heard it and introduced it to the other, but we both immediately decided it was our favorite song ever. Brian and I would listen to “Red” over and over in his car, wondering out loud if it was a memory or a short story. There’s a part in the song where the narrator wishes he could write someone a letter explaining that they still haven’t lost the thing they’re missing. When you’re listening to the song, it feels like the letter is for you. It’s an assurance.
I saw Okkervil River play for the first time at a coffee shop called Flipnotics, a place three blocks from my dad’s house that I had visited almost every day during my adolescence. Brian bailed on me, but being alone gave the experience a dreamy, fantastical quality. The band took the stage in the tiny room, which was packed with around 30 or 40 people — a lot for a place that size. Sheff sat down in a wooden chair, looking like an older brother from central casting, all glasses and the kind of bad posture that lanky young dudes always have. I remember bass player Zach Thomas taking the lead vocals on his “Dead Dog Song,” a raucous bluegrass jam. I remember the tightness in my chest during “Red.” I remember Jonathan Meiburg selling me an oversized T-shirt that’s still in my closet.
It was the best show I’d ever seen, as I immediately told everyone who would listen. In the three years that followed the show at Flips, I’d guess that saw Okkervil River play live at least 25 times, always clamoring for the front row. Each time, I’d breathlessly update my LiveJournal with a new entry declaring it “the best show ever.”
2005. “If you love me let me live in peace and please understand that the black sheep can wear the golden fleece and hold the winning hand.”
In 2005, Okkervil River released Black Sheep Boy, their third album and most ambitious work to date. The lyrics are incredibly literary and narratively complex, and the music a big step away from their folkier roots and toward a more sweeping, orchestral sound that made every song an anthem. The quietest song on the album is the opener and namesake, a cover of folk singer Tim Hardin’s 1967 song “Black Sheep Boy.” The album returns to the themes of the “black sheep boy” over and over, and Hardin’s biography is referenced throughout the songs’ stories of addiction, loneliness, and unrequitement.
Hardin, a folk musician and composer, is most famous for writing the song “If I Was A Carpenter,” which Bobby Darin made a hit. He was brilliant, but never as famous as he deserved to be, and he was also a heroin addict. Hardin lapsed further into his addiction by the mid-’70s, and he died of an overdose in 1980.
Hardin’s music sounds painfully true, and the singer often addresses the listener very directly — his “you” feels like it’s actually you. When you’re listening closely, it feels eerily like Tim is in the room with you, touching you, his hands on your shoulders or his palm to your cheek. He’s whispering in your ear, telling you very directly that “if [he] listened long enough to you, [he’d] find a way to believe that it’s all true.”
On Black Sheep Boy’s standout “For Real,” Sheff’s narrator thirsts for “real blood, real knives, real cries.” Commenters on SongMeanings have a variety of theories about the song: It’s about sadomasochism, or Ayn Rand, or escaping abuse, or suspecting your significant other of infidelity. So, what’s the truth behind the song? Sheff answered that question in an interview once, saying that it was just his attempt to squeeze the word “real” in as many times as possible.
Many of Okkervil River’s songs are clearly not autobiographical — most obviously when the narrator is a woman or beast. Still, they don’t feel any less true than the folk songs of Tim Hardin or songwriters who are prized for their authenticity. Those songs may contain more “real” secrets, but Okkervil River songs have enough room for me to lock away my own secrets inside them. After so many years of listening to Okkervil River, including them on just about every mix I’ve made as an adult, and going to see them dozens of times, it feels like their music is part of my identity. I’m not sure it matters what Sheff’s specific intentions or inspirations in writing “For Real” were — the song is magic, adapting as it changes hands to be whatever you need it to be.
2006–2007. “What gives this mess some grace it’s kicks, man? Unless it’s fiction? Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?”
In 2006, Okkervil River was making a documentary — which, as far as I know, has yet to be released. The crew wanted to follow around a “hard-core” Okkervil River fan around during a show at a dive bar, the circus-themed Carousel Lounge in north Austin. I was incredibly flattered that that Sheff had thought of me, oblivious to the possibly embarrassing insinuation, and agreed immediately. My best friend and roommate Larissa would come along, obviously. A cameraman showed up at the bookstore where we both worked and handed us his video camera for the car ride over to the Carousel. We filmed each other making faces and singing along to our favorite Okkervil River songs. The Carousel is a setups bar (meaning you can bring your own liquor, and they sell you the mixers), so we were carrying, and already drinking from, a bottle of whiskey. Once we arrived at the venue, the hired gun filmed us constantly and asked me a couple questions.
Camera guy: So, how has Okkervil River changed your life?
Summer Anne: Um… It’s… they’ve… brought better music into my life?
Camera guy: But, I mean, you’re like a super-fan, right? What’s the big deal? Have you come to Jesus or something?
Summer Anne [laughing]: Uh, no. But I’ve, uh, come to Will Sheff a few times!
The crass humor of a whiskey-drunk 24-year-old, captured on film for all of eternity. Over the years, my cheap joke has gone from the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to a funny story I sometimes tell at parties. Still, I do actually regret not having a good answer to the guy’s original question. Okkervil River had certainly changed my life, but I couldn’t explain how.
A few months later, Okkervil River played a show at the super-fancy Hogg Auditorium on the University of Texas campus. I think it was meant to be in direct contrast to their Carousel Lounge show, which had ended up a drunken mess for everyone involved. At Hogg, 20-some-odd musicians in fancy suits and dresses took the stage, including violinists, horn players, backup singers, and Zack Thomas, the band’s former bass player who had long ago retired. It was an occasion! Again, I was at the show with Larissa — we did most things together in those days.
The band opened with “Maine Island Lovers,” a story of infidelity told from the perspective of a married woman spending a vacation with her lover. It’s a heartbreaker that upends the traditional “wronged man/woman” adultery song — it’s so much more complex and compassionate than that, reaching to understand the motivations behind actions that many shrug off as incomprehensible.
“When I fell on the concrete it was lovely,
because you could see what’s been running so hot in me.
But when I fell on the concrete, you went white as a sheet
and wished that nothing in this world would ever hurt me.
Well, keep wishing.”
Larissa and I each cried on multiple occasions during the performance. Many Okkervil River songs had always affected me, but this was more than usual. Maybe it was because I knew it was the end of an era. A few months later, I moved out of the tiny house with Larissa, and the kind of friendship we had — the kind where we shared every single thing that passed through our hearts every day — slipped from our hands. Within the next couple years, the brilliant Jonathan Meiburg left Okkervil River to focus on his own project, Shearwater, Will Sheff moved from Austin to Brooklyn, and I started feeling too old and tired to go to shows four or five nights a week. But on that night, after the show, Larissa and I piled into her boyfriend’s truck and we raced down Guadalupe, grins plastered on our tear-stained faces, giddy, on our way to some party. I’m grateful that we both get to keep forever the feeling we had that night, of having all of your feelings completely understood by another person without having to say a word.
2008. “But I don’t want to look so deep inside yet.”
A lot happened in 2008. The first part of the year was spent on an endless bender with my latest and prevailing best friend, Mandy, culminating in matching tattoos. I had a terribly one-sided relationship with a boy who warned me 100 times before breaking my heart in a truly spectacular fashion. I dealt — or didn’t — with a gut-wrenching family emergency that forced me to be a grown-up, or at least pretend to be one. Then, exhausted in the middle of it all, I met another Brian… who turned out to be the Brian for me — and still is, five years later.
So, I was a little distracted when my favorite band released The Stand Ins, a more introverted followup to the previous year’s The Stage Names, and a continuation of that record’s themes of fame, fandom, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But not completely distracted: In my many, many long and ardent emails sent that year, I wrote entire sections of the lyrics alongside my own feelings. Looking back, I’m not sure that anyone knew what I was quoting from, and what I was writing myself. I was too tired to care.
“I go home take off clothes, smoke a bowl, watch a whole TV movie. I was supposed to be writing the most beautiful poems, and completely revealing divine mysteries up close. I can’t say that I’m feeling that much at all, 27 years old.”
I was 26, but it was close enough.
On Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium, their seventh full-length album, Sheff’s songs seem to have taken a more deliberately inward focus. The promotion for the album has included an interactive map of Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, and a video game based on exploring that same town.
The album’s 11 new songs evoke the fantasy of childhood and adolescence, and play inside the gray area between memories and dreams, Ataris and VCRs. Certain themes that have crisscrossed through the band’s entire oeuvre seem to come into clear focus on this album: lost and adventuresome children, the sea, brothers, sisters, a small town.
The album feels like a turning point for the band, probably thanks to the work of veteran producer John Agnello, who previously worked on ’80s hits such as The Outfield’s “Your Love” and Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. Agnello brings a polish and pop sensibility to Sheff’s ornate words, turning cryptic phrases into fist pumping choruses. “Stay Young” opens with synth that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Agnello’s mid-’80s pop hits, and the chorus’s message begs for eternal youth. It’s catchy and the beat is driving and the kind of song you start to sing along to midway through the very first lesson. It’s easy for me to imagine “Stay Young” being played on mainstream radio — after more than a decade of listening, that particular feeling is a first.
“All these hateful people judging and hand wringing
Lord, why don’t you bury me in all they call sinning?
Open up your heart, show me the place where love is missing
How long have you been missing love?”
And yet, buried in the song’s hookiness is what I’ve realized has drawn me to this band all along. Since 2002, a dozen-some-odd musicians have come in and out of the band, Will Sheff moved from my hometown to Brooklyn, New York, and the songs have gone from sparsely produced folk to slickly packaged pop hits. But the heart of Sheff’s songs that has remained the same. Whether the songs are about his own childhood, or a long-gone folk singer, or a lonely dancer’s mom, at their core is empathy and understanding. In a world that’s full of judgement, sarcasm, and cheap laughs, they are unapologetically earnest. They make me feel whatever the opposite of alone is, and they make me want to make other people feel that too. And I guess that’s how Okkervil River has changed my life.
The Silver Gymnasium is now available on CASSETTE (!), LP, and CD.