Okkervil River flows through St. Petersburg, Russia. Tatyana Tolstaya, the great-granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy, wrote a short story named after it.
The real Okkervil River could have gone on enjoying its life as just another Russian river, with some literary weight to it, as many rivers do, but fate had something else in store for the Okkervil. One day, while Will Sheff and childhood friends Seth Warren and Zach Thomas were trying to name their new musical project, Sheff threw out "Okkervil River." It stuck.
Rivers are often the arteries of civilizations; like burglars and blood, they run through something, bringing things in and taking things away. If you live near a river, it is a constant presence in your life. There is a reason cities are built on rivers; you can go for days without food but not without water. There is a reason why, when you Google "Okkervil River," you get 10 pages of people praising their music.
The river's presence works in much the same pervasive way for the band Okkervil River, who call Austin, Texas home. Their third and most recent record, Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar), was recorded at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco by Scott Solter. The record was inspired, explained Sheff, a little by the water surrounding San Francisco, and a little by the first-ever tour that Okkervil River had gone on before recording the record.
"It's a real leap of faith," said Sheff of touring. "You create this bunch of songs, and you go out on the road, and you have to really believe in them. ... John Vanderslice says 'It's like a whaling ship, being on tour.'"
After forging their own river of songs through America, sweeping up rave reviews with their lyrical story-songs that ebb and swell and meander, Okkervil River knew they wanted to make a "nautical record."
"Our last record was conceived as a more earthy record, kind of dirty, and then with the new record, we wanted to do a more watery, more glassy, pristine record," explained Sheff. "It all sounds a lot cleaner, and a lot of the songs are sort of about sailing away and washing things and leaving things behind."
On the first listen, Down the River of Golden Dreams seems a bit chilly; the record opens with a some women talking. It's inaccessibly strange, until you learn that one of the women is Warren's great aunt, and that she's the one playing the piano piece that follows.
Wading further in, the record begins to warm up, or you begin to warm up to it; either way, this is one of those records that gets better after every listen. The first song, "It Ends With a Fall," builds, with the help of organs and strings, into dramatic orchestral music Americana; the songs flow into each other and the water images rise to the surface.
Songs like "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" reveal why so many critics are quick to draw correlations between Okkervil River and Bright Eyes and Will Oldham. The comparisons aren't far off base; Sheff notes that he sings in the same register as Will Oldham, and there is an element of gothic alt.country to Sheff's songs. Okkervil River, like Bright Eyes, don't rely on a straightforward verse-chorus-verse formula; the songs usually end in an entirely different place than where they began. And Sheff's lyrics, like Conor Oberst's, are in complete sentences.
But the similarities end there.
"For a while I was like, grrr, I'm sick of people bringing up the same bands. For the record, I don't try to write songs about myself. I think that's the big difference between me and Bright Eyes; he does a lot of autobiographical stuff. I like to tell stories, fictional things that are real," said Sheff. "I'm just glad that people are listening to songs that people put a lot of effort into."
The effort that Okkervil River puts into their songs spills out everywhere; listen closely at any given moment, and several instruments are present (mandolin, Mellotron, banjo, piano, different organs creating different sounds) all playing something simple and sweet.
"We wanted to make a record that would really twinkle and gleam," said Sheff.
Sheff's songs read like narratives; the lyrics are printed out in text blocks on the CD insert, with titles like "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Confession." Sheff also writes film reviews for the Austin Chronicle, and used to write about music for Audiogalaxy and the Chronicle before he decided that writing about music was affecting his writing of music.
"I find writing about music to be detrimental to making music, which is why I got out of it," said Sheff. "I felt like I was learning too much and I was approaching it from a cerebral space ... . I was becoming too cynical and too analytical about music, and I really love doing it, and I'm sort of a nerdy record collector. ... Somebody told me critics are to artists like ornithologists are to birds ... it's two different processes, the taking apart and the putting together in the first place."
Okkervil River's songs benefit, though, from careful articulation of thoughts through words and instruments, telling stories of relationships in landscapes like living rooms and suburban thoroughfares, on rivers of towns and traffic.
"I tend to write in a way that's a little more literary, I get a lot of inspiration from reading," said Sheff.
Sheff's said he often returns to similar themes because he finds them provocative.
"As I've been doing it for a while I guess I do start to see things that I'm more and more obsessed with and I start to sort them into categories," said Sheff. "... I'm very obsessed with death and dying. I've probably written more murder ballads than is permissible by law, but we left those off the record."
There are still murders and deaths in the songs on Down the River of Golden Dreams, but it's more causal, accidental death, the kind of death that all love eventually ends in. Okkervil River's songs seep in desperation, in surrender, in the sheer effort that goes into good art, into just getting up and getting through another day, in the ability of indirection of natural imagery to better communicate these kinds of sentiments.
"The natural world is a real continual source of inspiration--I like that alchemical approach," said Sheff. "It's nice to have a writing concept, but who knows where I'll be when I wanna record again."