REVIEW: Okkervil River: Down the River of Golden Dreams
Okkervil River: Down the River of Golden Dreams [Jagjaguwar, 2003] (mp3)
Three words? a grey-gold dawn
Okkervil River were a band with undergrowth. Burrs and nettles swayed alongside their first two albums; flies buzzed in a melancholy clearing; leaves licked at ankles. Their sophomore release, Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, was a wonder: it crept into my life with the speed of a beetle, of a languid brown stream. Though at first I hardly noticed, soon I could not live without its broken paeans to dead girls; its banjo-touched, sad-joyous reels. Here was a record that gleamed in the moss, that proved folk-rock still had places to go (away from the Will Oldhams, away from the Microphones, Badly Drawn Boys and Iron & Wines). Away from even the long shadow of Neutral Milk Hotel - for though Okkervil River bump up against Jeff Magnum's lush-and-forlorn oeuvre, semen and seawater is replaced with blood and dirt. These songs were about drownings, and not the drowned.
How strange is it, then, that Down the River of Golden Dreams has washed all of that moss away, wiped the bloodstains from its hands. Gone are the murder-ballads, the variety of cracked voices, the barnyard waltzes. Instead: shiny pearls, crystal images, and clean songs that are tinged with (but not stained by) nostalgia. The band - with its mellotrons, wurlitzers, accordions, mandolins, banjos, and yes, guitars - has receded to the background. Will Sheff has stepped (not shuffled) to the microphone. And while the songs remain melancholy, Okkervil River no longer plays songs for wakes or barn-burnings; they play songs for bedrooms and dreams, road-trips and lakeshores.
From one perspective, Okkervil River has simply become the Will Robinson Sheff Band. This is sad: the motley instrumental contributions of Jonathan Meiburg, Seth Warren and Zachary Thomas are much of what is great about Okkervil River. The thick browns, greens, reds and whites of the group's instrumental sound are faded to watercolour, colouring-in the sketches Sheff's vocals draw. The most beautiful moment on Down the River of Golden Dreams, the close-your-eyes-and-relish-it moment, belongs to Zachary Thomas's mandolin solo on "Yellow": we would all benefit from hearing more.
The shift of focus to Will Sheff is buoyed by the fact that Sheff is perhaps the finest young songwriter in America. Though Tom Waits can grin maniacally over the lot of them, Sheff's marvellous, effortless, free-flying stories trounce Conor and Damien and Jeff. On "Blanket and Crib," as Sheff warns an infant of life's hungry & smiling perils, he sings some starry-eyed advice that rivals Wayne Coyne's wisdom in "Do You Realize":
"Remember this, no matter what someone did: that they once were just a kid at breast and in bib, in blanket and crib. So just reach inside yourself and find the part that still needs help, find that part in someone else and you'll do good."But the bulk of Golden Dreams isn't confessional, weepy whingeing; these are narratives of expired movie-stars, adulterers and war-criminals and the near-dead; portraits not diary-entries. Sheff's lyrics flow naturally out of his mouth, stories at once simple and beautiful. Liberal doses of horns carry tracks like "For the Enemy" and "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" into Bright Eyes territory, as does the occasional strain on Sheff's Huckleberry Finn vocals, but would Oberst ever write lines like these?
"As his close-up comes cascading down from above, the eyes of a nation in love are looking on, all of their hopes held up. And the words that some screenwriter counted and chose, and then set in their sequence and froze, unfreeze on his tongue as he speaks for all of us but one. And honey, he's gone. And baby, he's everyone's. ... He's not there, that's just light that's not yet dead. Wait two hours and watch what'll be there instead." ("Song About a Star")Checkerboard midtempo track after checkerboard midtempo track, each carefully written, boosted with dashes of strings, mellotron whorls and sudden drum crashes. At their noisiest, sadly, things get a little muddy, but for the most part a mellow vibe (and sonic clarity) prevails.
The final track on Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See was the "Okkervil River Song" - a mandolin-woven masterpiece that is among my very favourite cuts of all time. "Seas Too Far to Reach," the last song on Golden Dreams does not topple its predecessor, but it aims as high. Sheff sings a fantasy of angels in ocean gales, of driving into warmth and friendship, of comfort when the "AM radio is broken / down and crying." As the mandolin does indeed weave in (hooray!), as the organ glimmers and hums, as horns blossom in the east, there are ships sailing into blue-white-and-gold skies. While only one other song on Golden Dreams stands out from the pack - the wide-armed and desperate "It Ends With a Fall" - "Seas Too Far to Reach" almost makes up for its siblings. William Sheff's crafted lyrics find a dancing-partner in the music that is finally free, bold, and sharing center-stage. Five minutes long and two minutes too short.
Down the River of Golden Dreams is not an album of genius, but it has enough flecks of brilliance to justify superlatives. Though the band may have its reins held too tightly, dressed up in lacklustre arrangements, Sheff proves his maturity (and panache) as a songwriter, and over repeated listens, these songs blossom into genuine pleasures. Okkervil River has not yet arrived at wherever it is the band is ultimately headed: for the moment, however, the journey is a light-kissed delight in itself.