10 Best Okkervil River Songs
Following news that Austin’s Okkervil River are prepping their seventh album in 11 years, it makes sense to reflect back on their high-water marks. Backed by a cast of rotating players, singer-songwriter Will Sheff has been the only constant, but despite the lack of a steady lineup, the band has forged a consistent sound, and that’s down to Sheff’s vision. His songs often feature mandolin, horns and strings — none of which distract from his lyrics, which are of the highest importance. Sheff’s capable of penning weepers and rockers alike, and his compositions can be spare or busy, his vocals whispers or screams. His discography is filled with gems, but these are the 10 Best Okkervil River songs.
‘Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas’
Okkervil River is generally considered an Austin band, but songwriter Will Sheff is from New Hampshire. While most of his later songs are written as character pieces, it’s easy to hear how the idea of leaving home factors into ‘Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas.’ Sheff’s early songs contain the most direct glimpses into his life, and this one resonates with anyone who has gone home and realized that everything has changed, including themselves.
‘Mermaid’ is neither a song you instantly connect with nor a live favorite. But, of all the material from Okkervil River’s last album, this tune best plays to Will Sheff’s strengths: lush arrangements, swelling emotional peaks, clever wordplay and gorgeous melodies. The last 90 seconds of this song are gold.
‘Love to a Monster’
‘Love to a Monster’ may sound like a simple love song, but the b-side is another Sheff lyrical gem. The words are plain, but Sheff puts every forced rhymer in music to shame by pulling off four or five rhymes within a couple lines, using internal rhymes, end rhymes and false rhymes. It sounds beautiful with the music, but it’s the perfect phrasing and Sheff’s bitter wit that make ‘Love to a Monster’ an unheralded gem. Best line: “Yeah, I hope you get angry, and hurt, and have the hardest of landings. And i hope your new man thinks of me when he sees what a number I did on you.”
This one’s for anyone that has loved someone unable to let go of their past. Sure, No. 7 on our list of the Best Okkervil River Songs sounds like an elastic pop locomotive, but Sheff’s scream at the end of each verse — “You should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours” — is empowering and unforgettable. And anyone who’s been through the same thing knows it doesn’t work.
The murder ballad as a form dates back a couple thousand years, and Will Sheff’s ‘Westfall’ is one of the greats. The first-person narrative centers on a high school killer and ends with the repeated, haunting lyric, “Evil don’t look like anything.” On Okkervil River’s debut, Sheff was already an all-star lyricist, and this might be the best of the set.
Whereas musicians sometimes earn their money by simplifying complex emotions through song, ‘A Stone’ does the opposite. It’s a simple sad tale of unrequited affection, but leave it to Sheff to extend a stone’s fantasy across the entire final verse.
Once upon a time, Okkervil River’s keyboardist was a guy named Jonathan Meiburg, and he and Will Sheff formed a side-project called Shearwater. By the time of ‘The Stand Ins,’ Shearwater had grown to become Meiburg’s full-time job. The two split with their friendships in tact, and ‘Lost Coastlines’ was released after Meiburg left, meaning he could never perform his part of the duet onstage. While Sheff claimed the song was written before Meiburg left the band, the thematic parallels make ‘Lost Coastlines’ a lovely farewell to a bandmate and friend.
‘Seas Too Far To Reach’
Probably not a song on many people’s lists, ‘Seas Too Far to Reach’ unfolds with with a steady hand, as the arrangement thickens until the concluding “la la las” take the song to a grander place than it seemed to be heading. Plus, like ‘A Stone,’ the extended simile Sheff breathlessly delivers — in this case a description of the person that shares your bed — is a stunning bit of writing: “Sounds like waves upon a sea too far to reach / But I’ll gather up my men and try to sail on it again, and we’ll walk and quietly talk all through the country of your skin, made up of pieces of the places that you’ve dreamed and that you’ve been / We will sleep outside in tents upon this unfamiliar land, and in the morning we’ll awake, as a foreign dawning breaks, my men and I, we will awake / Let’s try again.”
‘Our Life Is Not A Movie But Maybe’
No. 2 on our list of the 10 Best Okkervil River Songs was the first single of the band’s career that was anticipated by folks other than their loyal fans. ‘The Stage Names’ found the band confident and about to break through, and it might be the album where Sheff is his most consistent. But that single, where Sheff evokes the language of movies a weave his insights, is so well done that it deserves special admiration. Sheff explains that a life story is not a movie. “No fade in, film begins on a kid in the big city,” he sings. “And no cut to a costly parade, that’s for him only. No dissolve to a sliver of gray, that’s his new lady. Where she glows just like grain on the flickering pane. Of some great movie.” And what follows is one of the greatest moments in music history, as Sheff puts things in perspective with his heartfelt scream of “Hey, I didn’t watch it.”
‘So Come Back, I’m Waiting’
‘So Come Back, I’m Waiting’ is the best song by Okkervil River, and it might even be the best song by anyone. Drawn out and soaring, the song lets Sheff cut open his heart and bleed all over his listeners, with dual climaxes and a huge string finale. A deep cut from their best album, it’s a fixture of the live show, and it always should be.