Okkervil River are not, as far as I know, a household name – no Mountain Goats, say, or Wilco. Neither, however, are they hated with the same passion as other mostly beardy white male indie bands, such as (of course) Mumford & Sons. Sure, Pitchfork slagged off The Silver Gymnasium (which incidentally contains my favourite song of theirs, ‘Down Down the Deep River’; unfortunately they don’t play that one tonight). And their most recent album, In the Rainbow Rain, has received lovely reviews. In general, though, Okkervil River aren’t what you would call the usual suspects, either good or bad.
I enjoy this ambiguity. It allows me to indulge in the fantasy that Okkervil River are a secret I share with no one else (except you, privileged reader!). In virtue of this, it makes them, in a private sense, more real, in the way that the emotions you feel while reading a novel by yourself can be more real than those you feel in response to the world.
But it is a fantasy. Tonight’s show in London, which was moved last minute from KOKO to The Garage, in Islington, is sold out. Okkervil River opens their set confidently with a bunch of mostly new tracks, including the (auto)biographical ‘Famous Tracheotomies’ which craftfully weaves in the theme of The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ (a melody that always makes me feel so, so calm). After ‘New Blood’, a non-album single which will do well as an early Halloween hit, the band takes us back all the way in time to 2001 with their beautifully titled ‘The Velocity of Saul At the Time of His Conversion’. This quiet song is played right after some dude in the crowd shouts “Play some rock and roll!”, to which lead singer Will Sheff coolly responds: “Thanks, you just made the show worse for everybody else… this song is the opposite.”
The second half of the set, as well as the encore, features highlights from Okkervil River’s long career: ‘Black’, which reminds us that there was a time when men where allowed to sing with a pathos so abundant that it would certainly be frowned upon in this post-Mumford world (and it’s both nice to relive that time and good that things have changed, I suppose); the band’s own swansong ‘Okkervil River R.I.P.’; ‘Lost Coastlines’, with main vocals by keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti; and of course ‘Our Live Is Not A Movie Or Maybe’.
That last song is, among things, about a sort of ‘realness’ of life, a theme which figures importantly tonight, and indeed is probably one of the main themes of Okkervil River’s music in general. It explicitly surfaces on two occasions. The first time is during the main set’s final song, ‘For Real’ (the title is a giveaway). Halfway through the song, Will Sheff beckons the lights to be turned off (only the green exit lights stay on, which is a metaphor for something). He asks us to close our eyes and disregard the room and the bodies around us until we are feeling like we are “just there, like a head floating in space”. This gives me a sort of intense reach to an inner truth, about who we are without the clothes we wear and apart from how others see us. The ensuing verse is sufficiently metaphysical (and the five times repeated ‘really’ sounds different every time):
Cause there’s nothing quite like the blinding light
That curtains cast aside
And no attempt is made to explain away
The things that really, really, really, really, really are behind
During the final song of the night, a long version of ‘Unless It’s Kicks’, the desire for something real is directed in the opposite direction: not towards introspection, but pushing for connection. “I wish there wasn’t this space between us, jesus christ”, Sheff exclaims, and then goes off into a rant about barriers: the physical barrier in front of him, of course, but also the barriers between us, the barrier between “the boy all the way at the back and the girl all the way down the front”. He invites us, again (but differently), to overcome those bounderies and to find ourselves outside ourselves.
The lines “What gives this mess some grace / Unless it’s fictions” refer to life itself. But it’s the following possibility of a way out that really (really!) captures our predicament: “Unless it’s lies or it’s love”. Lies or love. There is a choice, an option.
And so it all fits together, in the end. Okkervil River are a special band. They try to pierce through the layer of film that exists between us and the world, and between us and each other, and perhaps between us and ourselves. It is my secret theory that this is what music must do: imbue the world with realness through the intensity of the feelings it invokes in us. And tonight Okkervil River at least got at some sort of truth about all this.
-- Caspar Jacobs, October 22, 2018