The Stage Names (Bonus Track Version)

The Stage Names (Bonus Track Version)

Okkervil River is that rara avis, a band that makes music as interesting lyrically as it is musically. Who else writes about art, life, and the search for meaning, then makes it sound as urgent as the simplest and saddest of love songs? A case in point: the weirdly epic anti-epic “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” lists all the ways life is smaller and less satisfying than film, even as the music swells with cinematic drama, escalating to a full-on piano/guitar freakout between verses. The terrific “A Hand to Take Hold Of” yearns for coherence even as its handclaps, horns, and sunny “doot-doot”s channel Motown via the Cure. Spiked with tinkling piano curlicues and sunny horns, “Plus Ones” is a Stephin Merritt-style exercise in referentialism that adds one to a series of pop song clichés — 100 Luftballoons, 8 Chinese brothers, even the 51st way to leave your lover (which “admittedly, doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”) Just as clever but more affecting is the final song, a bittersweet mash-up of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” with, of all things, the poet John Berryman’s suicide. By the time Sheff sings “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” it’s the most heartbreaking musical punchline you’ve heard in your life.

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