Beauty in human failings is a theme that has been explored countless times since the dawn of artistic expression. From Greek tragedy to Shakespeare to Appalachian dirges to good old-fashioned country murder ballads, the fatal flaws and inherent vulnerability of human existence is fertile territory for poetic examination - so much so that few dark corners of our fallible souls remain untouched. So how, then, does one breathe new life into subject matter so profoundly panoptic and, frankly, overdone? Write what you know, that's how.
With their fifth full-length album, The Stage Names, Austin's avant-folk septet Okkervil River has crafted a majestic ode to the frailties of a subject no doubt near and dear to the hearts of many reading this review: musicians and scenesters.
The album leads off with "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe," which could reasonably pass as a missing track from Elvis Costello's brilliant pop opus, Brutal Youth. It's a deftly constructed realization that, for all of our brooding metaphoric agony, problems we poetically inflate remain essentially just regular problems. In their words, "It's just a house burning, but it's not haunted."
The album twists and turns through stylistic changes but remains tightly coiled around its opening sentiment. The bouncy r&;b-tinged "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" sounds like sad-sack Conor Oberst fronting early Camper van Beethoven.
"Savannah Smiles" is a heart-rending lament of the pain one discovers upon realizing one's child is no longer that person in tattered old photos. I don't have kids, and after listening to this I'm not sure I want to.
The album's centerpiece is the following track, "Plus Ones," which gracefully weaves quirky pop references around the pitiable story of an aging scene hanger-on. "And no one wants a tune about the 100th luftballoon / that was seen shooting from the window of your room, to be a spot against the sky's colossal gloom / and land, deflated, in some neighbor state that's strewn with 99 others." It's the sort of song that Old 97's front man Rhett Miller wishes he could still write.
Okkervil River approach their subjects with incisive wit and affectionate understanding. You know these people. You've seen them at the clubs, in the coffee shops, sifting through the used bin of the fading indie record store. Perhaps you're one of them. One of us.
If so, you'd do well to pick up a copy of The Stage Names. Better yet, you could commiserate with the band and any scenesters with enough cash for a ticket this Monday at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge, where Okkervil River plays with idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Damien Jurado. We're all getting older. Now we have the soundtrack.