Okkervil River stopped by the Crystal Ballroom back in June. We caught up with them during the day just long enough to shoot a performance of “I Guess We Lost”, a b-side from their latest LP I Am Very Far, out on Jagjaguwar.
I am incredibly shy around strangers, and wasn’t expecting to have to write anything about this day. I hadn’t listened to Okkervil River since my dorm room in 2005, belting along to “The Latest Toughs,” and making sure my Replacements albums remained prominently displayed so nobody would catch on. I kept it as a guilty pleasure because I lumped them in with Bright Eyes and other Saddle Creek-y artists – bands I only secretly liked while maintaining a tough, music-snob exterior. But Will Sheff was writing songs before I discovered Black Sheep Boy, and though in my mind Sheff’s songwriting career started and ended with that album, the man continues to write prolifically. Clearly I haven’t kept up.
Of course, I forgot everything I used to know about the band when faced with the task of picking up the slack for our assigned writer (who took off surfing instead). I couldn’t think of anything to ask, so, naturally, the conversation veered toward the sort of nothing topics you’d expect from a band that’s constantly on the road (and an interviewer that’s on painkillers from the previous day’s surgery). It didn’t even seem like they wanted to be there that afternoon, and they clearly didn’t know why they were there. I couldn’t get a straight answer from them about it. Did their publicist just tell them to show up? Kinda.
Sheff made it sound like they do a session like this in every city: “We’ve done every song on the album stripped-down and acoustic five fucking million times, and we wanna do something different.”
A quick search reveals that perhaps they haven’t done one of these in every city. Regardless of where all those stripped-down acoustic versions have gone, we’re lucky that they saved the b-side for us. Through “I Guess We Lost”, a song the band hadn’t performed live since they last played at the Crystal in 2010, Sheff grants us entry to his heartbreaking soul – a place that I hadn’t visited in years.
These days, he doesn’t look back on youthful misadventures with a sense of desperation, but rather, a willingness to say “fuck it all” and admit that he’s not a kid anymore. Sheff is no longer belting the same energetic, coming-of-age love songs or churning out concept albums, but is experimenting with new formats through which his guts are melodically spilled. The music steps into new territory without trepidation, proving that Okkervil River is a band that’s been busy growing up over the past decade, whether I was there for it or not.