Take Me to the River

Wash yourself in the music of Okkervil River and be cleansed

Mar 10, 2004 at 4:00 am
Bound for glory: You can find this phrase sung in the old spirituals, written in the songs of Woody Guthrie and emblazoned on the motorcycles of Springsteen's heroes. For certain musicians, these words sum up the promise of a new kind of American music, where old and new can merge and achieve something greater, something that was once mythical and forbidden: a chance at freedom, and the freedom to create a nation's soundtrack.

It's doubtful that Will Robinson Sheff has a Harley-Davidson, but if he does, it very well may have the words "Bound for Failure" written in red, white and blue flashpaint. Sheff, the lead singer and chief songwriter for the Austin-based Okkervil River, is not bound to fail in the sense of the '70s proto-punk, the stymied Reagan youth or the well-postured slacker of Generation X. Sheff, by abandoning his plans of becoming a writer and focusing instead on songwriting, has joyfully joined the losers' bracket. In doing so, he and his band have begun to create this new American soundtrack. Glory may not be the intended goal, but much of what comes from Okkervil River is glorious.

The story begins with Sheff's stint in the writers' program at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he became increasingly frustrated with the academic wankery that was inhibiting his muse. "I wanted to become a writer or poet. I became frustrated [with] how we were being taught to write and the way our work was disseminated," he says. "Going into writing the way I was going, I would end up doing work that was very irrelevant to a lot of people.

"Academia causes [one to] tend toward playing with form, and it gets harder for people to access it. All the fun was being bled out of writing. I stopped writing altogether. I decided to lead into a new thing. Doing pop music seems more accessible."

Sheff rejects the notion that he is biding his time before his publishing deal comes through. "I don't think that I'm a slumming writer. Song is a very different form from fiction and poetry, and really, song is not to be looked down on like that. It's arguably the oldest art form there is. I try to remember that it is a vocation that has a noble lineage."

Before long, the songs came more freely than the poetry or fiction, and Sheff was faced with a vocational dilemma. "There was a lot of pressure on what I was going to do for a living, and it was becoming more patently obvious that I wanted to do nothing. For me, it felt really liberating to say, 'Screw all this, screw academia, screw the writers' program, I want to be irresponsible.' Not everybody gets a chance to throw caution to the wind." And with that gamble, Sheff's failure at one art form grew into a prowess in another.

Despite Sheff's exodus from the ivory tower, he still maintains an elegant mastery over his songs, and there is a certain literary quality to the band's latest record, Down the River of Golden Dreams. The rhyme schemes are fairly complex -- not pretentiously so, but in an ear-grabbing kind of way. Even the name Okkervil River comes from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstoya (and you thought that quoting Chekhov was hot), and while that may seem to be the height of disaffected intellectualism, Sheff strives for accessibility.

"I think that it's really important to realize that song is not watered-down poetry, and it's very important to not overpoeticize a song," he emphasizes. "The key is to fight the urge to make songs more complicated; a simple emotion will come across very viscerally if you sing it right. You don't need to put in four-dollar words."

Much of this desire to connect with the listener plays off of the universality of emotions, a trait that is often assigned to acts of the emo persuasion and is therefore deemed poisonous. But Sheff puts it simply: "If it means enough to you, it will mean something to somebody else."

While much of the appeal of Okkervil River comes from Sheff and his literary approach to pop, it's the music itself that allows such an easy entrance into the band's world. The songs are based around an acoustic guitar and are filled out with a solid rhythm section, reverberating keyboards and reedy accordion. The overall effect is a combination of several strains of American music: country-striped songwriter fare, fractured bedroom confessionals, throat-straining indie rock and broken-hearted soul. By coating weighty subject matter with a sweet-and-salty shell, Okkervil River walks the fence between immediate aural pleasure and a deeper gut-level of understanding.

One such gut shot comes on "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," a standout from Okkervil River's latest. It tells of a suburban everyman's life of comfort, repetition and malaise, set against the news story of a lieutenant pleading for forgiveness and sympathy for his crimes. The song climaxes as the lieutenant asks listeners to "make your heart my home." The song seamlessly sets up a parallel between the criminal's plea for understanding and the suburbanite's endless cycle of routine and suffocation.

"There's a lot of subject matter that doesn't get covered in pop songs, like [Prince's] 'When Doves Cry,'" says Sheff. "If you have fucked-up family life, you're gonna carry that into your adult life."

Since moving to Austin a few years back, the members of Okkervil River have been supported by the impressive independent music scene. And, perhaps by virtue of living in the Lone Star State, a bit of country twang has begun to show up in the band's songs. In the States, the band is occasionally tagged as an alt-country outfit, but most are able to see through the occasional pedal-steel solo and into the heart of a great rock & roll band.

When Okkervil River tours abroad, however, many European fans see the four-piece as the second coming of Ryan Adams. "In Europe we were seen as an alt-country band, but it didn't bother me too much. People are really into that stuff, so it's cool. The weirdest thing in Europe is that people like to scream, 'Yee-haw!', especially if they perceive that what's on stage is similar to a hoedown. If we were doing something that was remotely country, you would get some German guy yelling, 'Yee-haw!'," Sheff says.

When Okkervil River plays at the Creepy Crawl this week, it will mark the first time that the band has played in St. Louis. While this is fortunate for music fans, it also serves a dual purpose for Sheff: He is searching for a new place to call home. After a few enjoyable years in Austin, he has decided to relocate once more.

"Things run their course. I feel like I need to do something else," explains Sheff. "Touring constantly is pretty nice when you're looking for someplace to live; you can audition these cities. For this next tour, I want to look around and find the right place."

He is politely noncommittal when I suggest St. Louis as an option, but the confluence of rivers Okkervil and Mississippi could be a powerful force.