Okkervil River – Okkervil River R.I.P. (Music Video)
by Steven Spoerl
Last night, this site started humming along again, focusing in on the best pieces to have emerged during its short absence from regular coverage. Today that mode will continue until Heartbreaking Bravery’s once again caught up to the current release cycle. To get to that point, there’ll be two more posts featuring music videos and two featuring full streams. This post’s dedicated to the former, which included strong releases from Batwings Catwings, Metronomy, Yassassin, Haux, Death Grips, Adam Torres, Chet Vincent & The Big Bend, and The Julie Ruin.
For the featured spot, this time around, there’ll be a brief step outside of normalcy to discuss an act that was monumentally important in shaping the foundation of this site: Okkervil River. After discovering the band’s early discography, I hit a point of near-obsession that was primarily driven by bandleader Will Sheff’s approach to songwriting. He was one of the first songwriters to successfully bridge nearly all of my core interests into the narrative threads of Okkervil River’s albums (especially The Stage Names, which I still regard as my favorite album of all time).
In Sheff’s songs, no matter what point of view he was utilizing or adopting, there was always a very apparent empathetic, humanist approach that anchored the proceedings. For all the bruises, damage, and fatal flaws of the protagonists and antagonists that so vividly littered the band’s works, there was an opposing, near-paradoxical beauty afforded to those subjects.
Over time, the band accumulated a great deal of critical acclaim but never seemed to break through to the massive audience they deserved, even as many of their lesser contemporaries were swept into those realms. It was around that time where I began to fully realize the divide between uncompromising artistry and the specific, tempered appetites of those greater throngs.
Whether it was Okkervil River’s cleverness, fierce intelligence, tendencies towards intellectually challenging narrative devices, or the intimidating density of their work that prevented them from securing greater fame is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that their music struck a very deep chord with a large volume of people who, in turn, latched onto the band’s works with the kind of feverish admiration that the vast majority of bands can only ever hope to achieve.
Around that time was when I started formulating a commitment to the band’s that never got their due, forming the seed of an idea that would eventually become Heartbreaking Bravery.
After the period of time where their specific brand of defiantly subversive, strings-and-horns adorned genre-hybrid tapestries began to recede in the greater public’s respect and opinion, they’d already begun experimenting with a more oblique approach to their craft. While that more experimental-heavy era of the band essentially transitioned them out of that particular scene with their inimitable vision intact, several of the bands that surrounded them before that time fell to the wayside, cruelly discarded by a society that’s overly concerned with things that are decisively of the time and rarely concerned with the things that could be qualified as timeless.
That’s the source of the astonishing amount of emotional pull that’s present in the band’s latest track, the quietly devastating “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, which ostensibly laments a set period of Sheff’s life — one that’s inextricably informed by his main vehicle — and greets those memories with a forlorn respect and deep understanding. In a recently released music video that stars Tim Blake Nelson, Sheff once again takes on a directorial role and imbues the visual presentation with an air of the kind of sadness that never tips into regret.
It’s a bold work with a strong central performance that feels like an act of small, purposeful bravery despite its lingering resignation. In some ways, “Okkervil R.I.P. is a surprisingly difficult watch and in others, it’s deeply reassuring. However it’s viewed, it retains the sense of beauty that made the band such a compelling act at the outset of their career. That they’ve weathered as many storms as they have and still managed to come out with a vital — possibly even necessary — piece in their discography is nothing short of a triumph.
For those looking for materials to inform the clip even more, the characteristically poignant statement Sheff issued to preview the band’s forthcoming record, Away, can be read in full below.
The new Okkervil River album is called ‘Away’. I didn’t plan to make it and initially wasn’t sure if it was going to be an Okkervil River album or if I’d ever put it out. I wrote the songs during a confusing time of transition in my personal and professional life and recorded them quickly with a brand new group of musicians.
I got together the best New York players I could think of, people whose playing and personalities I was fans of and who came more out of a jazz or avant garde background, and we cut the songs live in one or two takes – trying to keep things as natural and immediate as possible – over three days in a studio on Long Island that hosts the Neve 8068 console which recorded Steely Dan’s Aja and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. I asked Marissa Nadler to sing on it and got the composer Nathan Thatcher to write some beautiful orchestral arrangements, we recorded them with the classical ensemble and then I mixed the record with Jonathan Wilson out in Los Angeles.
2013-2015 had been a strange time for me. I lost some connections in a music industry that was visibly falling apart. Some members of the Okkervil River backing band left, moving on to family life or to their own projects. I spent a good deal of time sitting in hospice with my grandfather, who was my idol, while he died. I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged. When there was trouble at home, a friend offered me her empty house in the Catskills where I could go and clear my head.
New songs were coming fast up there, so I set myself the challenge of trying to write as many as possible as quickly as possible. I wasn’t think about any kind of end product; the idea was just to write through what I was feeling, quickly and directly. Eventually, I realized I was writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new.
“Okkervil River R.I.P.” and “Call Yourself Renee” are good emotional transcriptions of that time. I wrote the latter on psylocibin mushrooms on a beautiful afternoon in early fall in the Catskills. I wrote “The Industry” quickly after getting some bad news. “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” is an anthem for the battleship my grandfather served on during the Pacific Theater of World War II. Before becoming a private school Headmaster, my grandfather was also a jazz musician; he paid his way through college as a bandleader, toured with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, and spent summers playing a residency at a NH lakeside gay dance club called The Jungle Room that kept live monkeys in the basement. (You can hear his actual trumpet on this song, played by C.J. Camarieri from yMusic.)
“Judey on a Street” is a love song, sunny but written late at night when the woods are maximum spooky. We cut “She Would Look for Me” pretty shapelessly, with a lot of improvisation, and it’s also a love song. “Mary on a Wave” is about the feminine aspect of God but is in a very masculine tuning: DADDAD. It’s also a love song. I wrote “Frontman in Heaven” in an obsessive three-day streak of writing for 14 hours, going to bed, getting up and writing again. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I wrote “Days Spent Floating (in the Halfbetween)” by just jotting down the first sentence that popped into my head every morning in October immediately after I opened my eyes. At the end of the month I had a finished song. It was recorded as an afterthought as the last thing we did when they were about to kick us out of the studio. You can hear me flub some lyrics. But one take and we had it.
I think this record was me taking my life back to zero and starting to add it all back up again, one plus one plus one. Any part that didn’t feel like it added up I left out. Weirdly, it was the easiest and most natural record I’ve ever made. More than any time in my life before, I felt guided by intuition – like I was going with the grain, walking in the direction the wind was blowing. The closer it got to being finished, the more the confusion I’d felt at the start went away. It’s not really an Okkervil River album and it’s also my favorite Okkervil River album.
Watch “Okkervil River R.I.P.” below and pre-order Away from ATO here.