Like the old saying goes, the show must go on, and on it does go for Okkervil River on The Stand Ins, the quickly crafted (barely a year after their last effort) but skillfully executed sequel to 2007’s The Stage Names. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor thematically as well as literally, it’s another softly rousing, subtly haunting collection of songs that explore hopeless romanticism and tragic aimlessness as only Will Sheff and company can.
One person who, sadly, will not be along for the ride anymore is Jonathan Meiburg, who left the group to continue forward with his equally excellent project Shearwater full time. That departure didn’t stop him from making one final contribution to Stand Ins via the gorgeous, rollicking “Lost Coastlines,” a suitably epic swan song for his work with the band.
“Coastlines” is the first of many album standouts that continue the poignant themes and metaphors first employed in Stage Names: in this case it is a nautical theme that equates the hardships of being in a band with none other than, you guessed it, rough waters. The slightly Memphis-tinged “Starry Stairs” continues the dead porn star yarn started by last year’s “Savannah Smiles.” Meanwhile, closer “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On the Roof of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979” echoes last year’s elegiac “John Allyn Smith Sails” with the tale of another gifted artist’s tragic suicide.
Lyrically, Sheff continues to display both a biting wit and aching vulnerability, the likes of which are enough to render Conor Oberst’s most recent output all but obsolete. As on previous efforts, he’s at his best when he turns his themes inward. The album’s catchiest number “Pop Lies,” a song about pre-programmed sing-along melodies, achieves delicious self-parody with a rocking playfulness that proves the positive influence touring with The New Pornographers has had on the group. Inversely, “Blue Tulips” is a reflective sister song to Stage’s “Title Track” that is alternately swooning and sobering.
Punctuated by instrumental interludes that could either be taken as palette cleansers or pace-breakers depending on who is listening, The Stand Ins arguably feels more like a cohesive whole than its older sibling, but could just as easily be viewed as the other side of the coin. With this last formidable pair of releases, Okkervil River have hit a spectacular stride that one only hopes will continue into their future work. I can’t wait to hear what The Stunt Doubles sound like.
Written by: Rob Huff