After a string of brilliant, operatic releases--culminating with 2005's magnum opus Black Sheep Boy--Okkervil River have finally struck a perfect balance between their strengths: the brainy and the poppy. Sure, the songs on The Stage Names include thoughtful lyrics about performance and audience (dissertation writers, take note), but each song stands alone as a melodic gem.
Opener "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe" sets the mood, shifting from palm-muted restraint to choral eruptions without feeling forced or contrived. Will Sheff still sings with frayed, explosive emotion, but his voice now brims with confidence.
Elsewhere, "Unless It's Kicks" hones an ideal classic-rock sound--Grateful Dead guitar jabs accommodating a trail of rising percussion--while slower numbers like shanty ballad "A Girl in Port" and the atmospheric "Title Track" haunt and stun. Meanwhile, the noir swing of "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" owes much (in the best sense) to Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives."
Then there is "John Allyn Smith Sails," the album-closing masterstroke. The tune is both a clever biographical examination of suicidal poet John Berryman and a stunning reimagining of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." The subject matters of art, death and regret are presented in a way that is familiar (reinventing a classic) and moving (suicide is not used as triumphant release).
In a career of small triumphs, it's nice to see Okkervil River embrace their moment in the spotlight with all the pomp, bravado and professionalism expected.