Perhaps thanks to singer Will Sheff's creative writing background or its Russian literature-derived band name, Okkervil River wears the tag of "literate rock & roll" more than any other band not named the Decemberists. (Which is silly, since all songwriters are by definition "literate," but we understand the genre tag, mostly.) The Austin-based band's records are dotted with lyrical bon mots and astute reference to both classic literature and pop culture, and Okkervil River's rangy folk-rock often feels like it should come with accompanying footnotes. And that's a good thing, since it rarely hampers Sheff's emotional payload in his turgid songs.
So in honor of Okkervil River's return to the Pageant stage tonight (where the band will be joined by the excellent Wye Oak), we've compiled five writing tips gleaned from Sheff's estimable songbook. Print these out and tape them in the back of your composition notebook -- we're sure your creative writing classmates will be impressed.
1. Writing is Re-Writing - "Wake and Be Fine"
Any good writer knows that a first draft is but a stepping-stone towards the finished product. For the video for this year's "Wake and Be Fine," the band decided to take the opportunity to revise the song's lyrics one last time, as the words are projected against the band's spirited, somewhat bi-polar performance. By the video's end, the torrent of words seems divorced from the song at hand -- or perhaps it's one last chance to get the words right.
2. Know Your Poets - "John Allyn Smith Sails"
Way back in the young and innocent days of 2004, I spoke with Sheff about his writing process and his background in academia. He defended his move towards pop music thusly: "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." Still, Sheff clearly knows his poets, as evident in this tribute to the late John Berryman, whose suicide and legacy are approached humanely in "John Allyn Smith Sails." It doesn't hurt that a reworked "Sloop John B." carries things home.
3. Increase Your Wordpower - "So Come Back, I Am Waiting"
No one likes those thesaurus-toting writers who plop down fifty-cent words clumsily and artlessly, but you have to admire Sheff's finely tuned vocabulary and his willingness to expand the indie rock lexicon one song at a time. This is apparent in Black Sheep Boy's climax "So Come Back, I Am Waiting," where he weaves "magisterial" (masterful), "wisteria" (a type of climbing shrub), and "abecedarian" (a student of the alphabet) all in one verse. Even the best rhyming dictionaries can't compete with that.
4. Embrace the Untrustworthy Narrator - "Westfall"
Early in the band's career, it was easy to lump Okkervil River with a host of other alt-country bands, but this mandolin-flecked murder ballad stands tall from the band's first outing. Sheff has stated that the song's details were inspired by a grisly double-murder in the band's hometown of Austin, but the vague details make it applicable to any bloodthirsty media frenzy. The killer's claim that "evil don't look like anything" stands in line with Springsteen's Nebraska and Flannery O'Connor's short fiction.
5. Don't Be Confined By Gender Roles - "Starry Stairs"
"Westfall" and much of the Black Sheep Boy record proved that Sheff could write comfortably from the mind of an unhinged, possibly deranged narrator, but subsequent albums found him trying on a host of other narrative hats. For The Stands Ins, Sheff turned out two of his more sympathetic characters that happened to be young women. The star of "On Tour with Zykos" ruminated on the ennui of the young, hot, rock & roll show-goer, but "Starry Stairs" was a dicier gamble. The song comes from the perspective of Shannon Wilsey, better known as pornographic actress Savannah, and the song works to humanize her without falling into the rusty old angel/whore dichotomy.