It’s difficult listening to an album for the first time after fans and critics alike have already picked it clean and are working on the bones. Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible to listen to a new record without any preconceived ideas of either it or its creators, hearing a months-old album for the first time is a bit like catching a must-see movie after the fact. In many cases, it’s hard not to be disappointed, as overblown hype and positive reviews can lead to unrealistic expectations.
For several months Okkervil River’s The Stage Names remained on my Must Listen To Before I Spring Off This Mortal Coil list. I liked 2005’s Black Sheep Boy well enough, especially its ragged sound and subject matter, even if it sometimes bordered on the overly melodramatic. Yet for whatever reason, as the plaudits for The Stage Names poured in, my doubts about how good an album it really was continued to increase.
Perhaps the attendant hype and eventual letdown around recent albums like Magic and Neon Bible have made me too skeptical. Despite this, The Stage Names is one of those rare albums where listeners hearing it for the first time won’t walk away wondering what all the spastic fuss is about. Over nine songs, Will Sheff and company craft a remarkable album that reveals new layers with each subsequent listen.
Most of the album’s reviews have focused on its obvious themes of the relationship between musicians and fans, the role and meaning of popular music in everyday life, and life on the stage. Certainly these are littered throughout the album: references to “some midlevel band” and “the ghost of some rock and roll fan, floating up from the stands with her heart opened up” make these themes obvious and impossible to ignore.
But this is an easy and somewhat lazy analysis. Such reviews make the album sound like a modern-day Ziggy Stardust, or, at its worst, a humorless and bleak concept album like Pink Floyd’s soap opera drivel The Wall. What’s most striking after several listens are the album’s “smaller” themes and how they unfold: life’s disappointments and boredom, little and massive failures, and lost and wasted opportunities.
These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are almost always skewed with a wry and dark sense of humor, whether it’s a messy breakup that references Paul Simon (“The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly, doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others…”), an unspectacular 17th birthday (“not everyone’s keen on lighting candle 17. The party’s done. The cake’s all gone. The plates are clean.”), or simple, biting observations that offer only small consolations (“It was your heart hurting, but not for too long, kid”).