erasing clouds

Okkervil River, Sleep and Wake-Up Songs

review by dave heaton

There's something really intriguing about the lyrics to Okkervil River's songs, written by lead singer/guitarist Will Robinson Sheff. He's a storyteller, and his songs are wrought with longing. Yet they're stories that don't follow a linear path that's easy to pin down - his lyrics are descriptive and character-filled, and those characters so often are filled with their own pasts and perspectives and vivid stations in life, yet somehow I'm never able to follow exactly what's happening. That shouldn't be unusual; songs by their very fragmented, poem-like nature aren't made to have complete narratives. But what's unique is the way that the songs feel both like complete stories and like half-formed stories, the one they're emotionally complete yet at the same time incomplete, and the way he pairs such specific, tangible, visceral details with philosophical statements and question marks. There's both a mythic quality to Okkervil River's songs and a confessional, diary-like feeling (albeit from a more novelistic, third-person perspective). All of this seems appropriate for a songwriter who is so captivated with both memories and dreams.

Okkervil River's new EP Sleep and Wake-Up Songs begins with a childhood tale of desire and identity ("A Favor"), and also includes both a song called "And I Have Seen the World of Dreams" and a perfectly circuitous (and pefectly, delicately melodic) love song ("Just Give Me Time"). In that way it's a very typical Okkervil River release. And really, it differs from last year's Down the River of Golden Dreams album only by having a slower overall pace and feeling, something that's advertised right in the EP's title (for 'waking up' in this case is of one piece with sleep, not a starkly different act). In the artwork and the songs it feels very much like an extension of Down the River..., like there were invisible songs hidden between that album's tracks which are here being pulled up from the river.

Every song is right in line with Okkervil River's strengths; Sheff's words are incisive, observant and open-ended at once. The songs are comfortably melodic but have a rustic rawness.They also have appropriately new and old qualities - sounding both like the works of a gifted singer-songwriter of today and like the ghost songs of sunken Mississippi River gambling boats.

The song that the EP leaves us with - and the one, therefore, that keeps circulating through my brain after the CD ends - is musically typical but lyrically atypical, in a way. "No Hidden Track," which asks the musical question "What if there's no hidden track?" is a deceptively simple song. It's a real beauty, a song that simply addresses our expectations of art and along the way becomes a 'meaning of life' inquiry, equating creators with the Creator and listeners' expectations with what we expect from life. It's a succint example of how Okkervil River use songs to probe the deepest questions, in ways that present no firm answers but are endlessly provoking.

Issue 29, December 2004

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