Review Summary: only the river stared back.
In my short years devouring music, I don’t think there’s a record that’s spoken to me as directly as Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See
has. To think that such a victory belongs to none other than Okkervil River, a band known for rockumentary ballads and abstract storytelling, a band who mystify those who they write about and mutate them into uneasy, masked figures, is preposterous. This is a band who never specifically look anyone in the eye unless they’re worth a rock ‘n’ roll damn, who end up translating Tim Hardin into nothing more than a horrible human feeling. That Will Sheff could ever have his stare focused as he does on Hardin for so long is understandable, but the stare is so rarely on us. Paste Magazine once went as far as to describe Will Sheff’s songwriting as “Kafka meets Mahler at the Hipster club,” and maybe they’re right: from Black Sheep Boy
onwards, Will Sheff was deeply struck by writing about people- porn stars and musicians and their addictions- and their otherness
. Will Sheff writes about the disturbing descent, and on Black Sheep Boy
it feels very Kafkaesque indeed; Sheff’s subject matter is a different man by the time “A Glow” comes around, no longer just a loner folk musician seeking solitude, now a lust-filled and inhumane thing
. It’s real and unreal, but it’s never quite about us, or to speak to the individual, you and me.
But it’s on Don’t Fall In Love
Sheff hits at you
most perfectly. It is, without a theme, without a metaphor, the most unflinching record I’ve ever heard, looking at death with a weary shrug and fixing its eye on humanity as if waiting for that descent, “Westfall” depicting so directly how this record won’t draw back: “When I killed her it was so easy I wanted to kill her again.” You could pick any lyric out of a hat from Don’t Fall In Love
and it would be as dismantling as that one, readily facing life as what we never speak of it being. Most importantly, it's about us even when it isn't: when "Red" chronicles the decayed life of a dancer, when "Westfall" kills off a character, the results are in our life.
Even to look at that title is to have Sheff take you, and none other than you, completely apart: Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See
. Nothing in Okkervil River’s catalogue has ever been said more forwardly than that comically tragic title, and even if this is for the bulk of its playtime a record more about heartbreak than it is murder, it feels utterly aware of its listener on every single moping storyline about lovers. On “Kansas City,” a truer than true folk homage, Sheff gives perhaps the most intimate lines of his career, howling a warning as deeply felt as the record title itself.
“I’ll tell you one thing that you should never do,
never let no woman tell you she loves you.
Sure she’ll call you “baby,” she’ll look in your eye
Gonna get on that airplane and wave bye bye bye bye bye bye.”
This embittered warning is an intimate moment with Sheff like none you’ll ever get again, as he loses it the way you’d expect from the one man folk band who cries over his accordion on the record’s front cover. It looks at you, and just you, for nine songs, even with the striking admission of “Westfall”: “evil don’t look like anything” is a simple enough thing to hear, but to hear it from this murderer is to have us truly know that Sheff is pointing at us. And Sheff, of course, does one better than accepting that evil doesn’t look like anything: he writes it down. He sings it.
That Sheff seeks a connection with the recipient of Don’t Fall In Love
is shattering to the formula of Okkervil River we have come to know. Love songs are certainly present through their catalogue, and Sheff’s angst is always worn heart-on-sleeve but it’s not for us to know what thoughts crawl through his head on Black Sheep Boy
or I Am Very Far
, and on his Stand Ins/Stage Names
project, we simply watch as those bigger than us fall from way up high. This record, Okkervil’s first, is so special because it draws us into it, eventually having us share in that final communal chant on “Okkervil River Song,” full of devastation and a typically humane
kind of descent. It is not uncommon to search and stare and have nothing stare back, for us to have no answer to the unspoken truths no one ever writes down, and so by the time this record is done playing, as Sheff signs off with his cry of “only the river stared back,” I find myself looking directly back at him.