As the first beats of The Stage Names creeps into audible view any fan of this band will undoubtedly realise that times have changed since the fantastic Black Sheep Boy, Okkervile River's 2005 desperate triumph. With The Stage Names, front man Will Sheff has again managed a triumph but its of a wholly different nature. I guess you could call it a triumphant triumph which I would have thought was the best type. Black Sheep Boy had the power to almost drown you in melancholy as Sheff's tales of woe and despair were delivered with treacle like denseness over all encompassing soundscapes. Though he has by no means cheered up he is aiming his desperation to the heavens and the result is epic.
Sheff writes like a novelist and composes songs full of mysterious characters and plays out his worldly misgivings through each of their sad, broken-down lives. While Black Sheep Boy conjured up images of a time long past The Stage Names is very much rooted in the present. Here we see Sheffs characters as musicians, fans or failing victims of the show-biz mangle. All this is told with Sheff's unique lyrical ambiguity as he manages to swamp you with bookish poetry while always slipping a wink here and there to warn you not to take it all too seriously.
The first three tracks set the tempo high as the dirty riffs of Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe count you in, Unless It Kicks is an endlessly climbing rock powerhouse of a track while A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene has a swaggeringly jovial jaunt as satisfying as a Love Cats-era Cure and as it descends into blasts of trumpet and backing 'doo doo doo's' we could be listening to Spoon. (Yes, it's that good.) But as thrilling as this opening run of songs is we know it can't continue and it just wouldn't be the same without Sheff providing us with ample opportunity to give in willingly to his unavoidable wave of blissful melancholia. Savannah Smiles is an achingly delicate tale of regret and lost moments while Girl In Port is Sheff at his storytelling best.
But if for some unimaginable reason, like you're mental, all this hasn't managed to convince you by the time you get to the penultimate John Allyn Smith Sails then you're given one last chance to reach out and grab this sorry talent by the scruff of its dirty neck. This is Sheff's tribute to the late John Berryman and it's his finest moments to date. Sheff adopts the first person as he chronicles the poets suicide but as a final twist of the grimmest humor he turns the song into a masterful rendition of the Beach Boys Sloop John B. As he launches himself to his death 'with a book in each hand,' the sorry admission, "this is the worst trip I've ever been on," rings out with laughable desperation and this songwriters genius is immortalised for ever.