The Most Beautiful Poems - By Volume

Got our poster on her wall so every boy that she brings back will see my best side. Johnny Foreigner - Stop Talking About Ghosts
willsheff

The Most Beautiful Poems

Robin Smith expresses his ample admiration for Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff - and the manner in which the songwriter explores his status as a musician. Author: on May 11, 2012
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This article was originally going to collect a lot of pointless babble on how the songwriter reacts to the environment they write in and the cost of suffering for art. In short, why do musicians write about music? Why do Blue Scholars use their songs to reinforce rap as poetry? Is there a reason other than laughs that Pavement slagged off bands who were supposed to be their peers? And while we run these examples down, why is being a musician so confusing? Young hip-hop duo G-Side rap about the trials of pumping gas all day to feed music, worded as much with scorn for being a habit as it is for being a passion. Arcade Fire wrote a song as blissfully simplistic as “Rococo” just to point out how flimsy and shitty the interaction they have with their fans has become. The Kinks wrote an album I could listen to for hours, that one that sported “Lola,” but the rest of the album is fascinating just for kicking out so bitterly at a music industry they were so wholly a part of. These are musicians writing music about just that, the talk of the process and the transformation of the song by a hundred different factors, from the wholly unmusical things that go with music, like funding your recording sessions with a way less romantic job, to the artful and supposed existential crisis that comes with being part of an industry or being part of a band. The most important crisis, of course, is what it’s like to be responsible for a song. And I do wonder if musicians want nothing more than to sing about why they do so – of course these dudes are going to scream why at the face of their passion.

willsheff

Illustration by Chris Harrop.

I would rather write about Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, though, because he has written so much about other musicians that I really need not bother. The Stage Names and its younger sibling, The Stand-Ins, go hand-in-hand in digging deeper into people we’ve done little more than glamorise and talk about, from the storytelling of John Berryman’s suicide to the constant fascination with porn-star Savannah, but rock music lies at the heart of both of these albums, and hangs from every backhanded remark Sheff makes. I want to point, mainly, to “Plus Ones,” which does what the entire album does but in a beautiful and obvious way. It responds to every damn rock idiom there is, sadly apologising for the words of rockers like R.E.M. and Tom Jones, and says doing it one better with a song is doing it wrong: these songs, they “leave scars.” I don’t want to call “Plus Ones,” or the album project it comes from, a deconstruction of popular music, nor a simple parody of it. Rather, Sheff is just endlessly fascinated with what a conventional rock song means, if anything at all. The ending is emotionally ruining, in that annoyingly gorgeous way: Sheff knows that a song relates to something, and for him, it’s usually to do with that tricky love thing. Which is why “A Girl In Port” follows as a moment of viciousness turned seriously romantic.

There’s another line on The Stand-Ins that celebrates Sheff’s cynicism for how a lyric is made: “he’s that liar who lied his pop song / and you’re lying when you sing along!” We’d roll our eyes at this contradiction of terms – to call for the death of pop music in pop music, how silly! – if Sheff weren’t writing in layers. “Pop Lie” has to be twofold, because there’s more to this story than simply flipping off what makes the charts. This makes me wonder whether Sheff is great just for writing songs about writing songs. On Black Sheep Boy I feel almost disorientated by its conflicting themes, both of which meet somewhere between Sheff’s violent lashing and the murky music he pairs himself with. Through that record, Sheff is writing his very own love letter to Tim Hardin, a folk musician with a tragic rock ‘n’ roll heroin death, but anyone who listened past the cover of Hardin’s that opens the album would know there’s a second remorseful story being told on this album – it’s also a messy, devastating break-up album, so crushing at its apex (“So Come Back, I Am Waiting”) that all the desperation for a lover has to be reeled back for the final word on Hardin on “A Glow.” Hardin is certainly being written about on Sheff’s album, but this isn’t a rockumentary: his horrible tragedy is so very evident on all of these songs, the deathly cries of “come into the den,” so definitely his own declaration channeled through Sheff, but even if a hundred comments on songmeanings.net will say “this song is about drugs!!!!!,” Sheff seems to be comparing the amount this musician means to him to the amount that romance has fucked him up. So what fascinates me on Black Sheep Boy is Sheff’s ability to write about music – what it means to be a folk musician, a loner, the black sheep boy himself – and this justifies covering his hero, because hearing these words again is, in its own way, like an unearthing of Hardin when sung by someone else: this guy was a loner, and this song said so. But what Sheff really seems to do on Black Sheep Boy is hold his break-up to a lense and reflect something about music into it. And that something is fucking huge: it doesn’t soften the album to add this philosophy of music to its themes. It gives it an even nastier kick.

I have no qualms with calling Will Sheff a hero of mine, a sad fact he’d definitely reject somewhere down the line. There’s a lyric for that, too: “and they wish they were me? What a dumb thing to do.” I’ve read a lot, looked into his admirable, journalistic stance on outsider music that challenges what we do and don’t take seriously in music, and what truly gets me about Sheff is an absolute dedication to his craft that seems to relate perfectly what it’s like just to be human, distressed, sad and lovesick, whatever. We think of music as an outlet and as a passion, but doesn’t it kinda suck sometimes too? Songs about the music often seem frustrated and resigned to the bullshit, and the Kinks said it like that to their producers: “I thought they were my friends.” But I think Sheff places the painful theme of music a little closer to the chest, another thing that rankles him after a bad day of struggling friendships and failing to make ends meet. There’s “On Tour With Zykos,” on which his character literally lives that life by coming home to music and not knowing what to do with it: “I was supposed to be writing, the most beautiful poems / and completely revealing divine mysteries up close.” The problem? “I can’t say that I’m feeling that much at all.” Music is a walk of life, so Sheff treats it like one. And so he sings about that rock ‘n’ roll man.

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