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Okkervil River | Down The River Of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguar)
The album after the album that initially got you into the band. Always a difficult one that. The first time around you probably didn’t have any expectations. You picked it up because something drew you, something liminal perhaps. And then, not expecting anything, the album suddenly delivers everything. Second time round you come loaded with more luggage than a supermodel on a Med holiday tearaway. And the album always disappoints. Axiomatic, you might think. Life, you might think. Nothing’s as good as the first time. We all know this yet we still rip off the shrink-wrap with that baited anticipation that really we know we shouldn’t expend (hope kills) but we still do…because? Because every now and then (once in a long unexpected while) that second time actually delivers and delivers harder and better than the first time. Perhaps this is because so many follow ups to great albums are always viewed as disappointments; it makes sense then that the few which actually deliver the goods are rated all the more highly for this very fact.
And so consider, ‘DTROGD’, the second full-length from Okkervil River. Last year’s ‘Don’t Fall In Love….’ was a breath of fresh air, a sharp shank to the kidney, a dream unloosed, roiling and raging, a promise kept. All these things and more. So, with great trepidation I put on the new album, garnered with similarly swirly fantasy artwork. And man, it’s not only better, it actually promises more than even the first album did. Promises you that these guys have actually found one of the loopholes in current music that allows them to draw from the deep well of the roots movement, the modernist movement, and yet pay no lip service to either.
So - this record as opposed to the last: well, there’s nothing as outright catchy or hummable as Kansas City or Red but the songs are still delicately constructed, complex beasts that swing and wail and rage and then ebb gently to their ends. Gone are the outright stringed tones of the previous albums (perhaps a reaction to being labelled Americana - but then listen to the last song) and ushered in are a whole phalanx of keyboards, Wurlitzers, drones and organs, lending the album a lush, grand feel that, due to the writing, never seems easy listening-ish or soft. We’re not talking about the Tindersticks here. Okkervil River use the organs and keyboards to create great washes of sound (think: ‘In A Silent Way’) over which Will Sheff’s ever-developing voice and lyrics float so powerfully. And it’s the songs that bring it all back home. Always that. A Niagara Falls of words that come tumbling out of the singer’s mouth. Listen to the desolate emptiness, pain and frustration of the adulterer’s lament, Maine Island Lovers, and if your heart doesn’t melt then man, you’re made of stone. Or the shockingly articulate and musically brave The War Criminal Rises and Speaks which contains some of the best lyrics this side of the century. Or perhaps it’s heartbreak you want. Well, how about the innocently titled Yellow which just drips melancholia and pain like an open wound. It’s almost a mirror piece to the previous album’s Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas, a similar sense of desolation and fear and death creeps through this work. And then it all ends with the country-tinged Seas Too Far To Reach, a drunkard’s lullaby, a mad shanty at the edge of the world.
Comparisons become redundant when music of such strength and intensity is being produced but if you want pointers try mid-period American Music Club or Will Oldham but, on the basis of this album, OR look as if they too will soon join such exalted ranks of the heart. Album of the year again? It’s not even worth discussing.
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003