Will Sheff - Nothing Special Music Album Reviews

Will Sheff - Nothing Special Music Album Reviews
The Okkervil River frontman has long taken a sledgehammer to the fourth wall; on his self-aware solo debut, he takes stock of the troubled state of the industry and delivers a eulogy for his band.

R.I.P. Okkervil River. Maybe? Even if the band returns to making albums, it’s never too early to call time of death for one of the defining bands of late-2000s mid-level indie rock. Frontman Will Sheff did it himself on 2016’s Away, which opened with an obituary, even though two years later the band released another album. Metaphorical and literal death has always figured prominently in his lyrics, and he’s always been tortured in his self-awareness: an artist knowingly taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall to directly address you, the listener and fan, whether that meant offering you a chance to add your own lyrics to “The Latest Toughs” or declaring the band had met its maker on a song called “R.I.P. Okkervil River.”

Okkervil River were always dying and Sheff was always writing their obituary, but Nothing Special, his first solo record, signals a very different, very real, and not especially meta kind of death. You can bet that the singer-songwriter who sang a song called “Singer Songwriter” knows the importance of releasing a solo album, especially this deep into his career. In that regard, it’s remarkable how easy and unforced Nothing Special sounds, both musically and lyrically, and it’s ironic how much it sounds like the work of a band, even more than his last few band albums. Working with a small crew he dubbed the Dirty Shitty Dirt Boys—including Will Graefe (Okkervil’s guitarist during its final years), Benjamin Lazar Davis, and Christian Lee Hutson—Sheff settles his voice a little deeper in the mix rather than keeping it out in front of the music.

As a result, it sounds live, even spontaneous, as though they’re not always sure where the song is taking them. Along the way they add careful flourishes to these downcast tunes, like the abrasive guitar solo on “Estrangement Zone” and the sympathetic piano chords on “The Spiral Season.” They build “Like the Last Time” to its immensely satisfying climax, but allow “Holy Man” to float and shimmer for eight long minutes. Nothing sounds belabored, nothing overthought. Sheff even allows himself to understate like never before. He sells the big, rousing moments with a cracked croon rather than a caterwaul. His voice sounds battered and weary, yet he remains charismatic, with new bits of Bowie in his delivery. He’s still singing about big ideas, but for the first time in a while, the songs don’t bend or buckle under the weight of them.

This is a solo album that knows it’s a solo album, by an artist taking stock of his more than 20 years in the industry and gesturing toward the dystopia that the current music scene has become. While it’s often dire and occasionally humorous, it’s always more than clever. That this solo album is so good, so immersive, and so thoughtful only makes Okkervil River seem even deader. Back in 2007 Sheff mockingly called the group a “mid-level band,” but in retrospect that lyric sounds like hollow self-denigration from an artist on an upward trajectory. Fifteen years later, however, his self-assessments sound truly bleak. “You give me a dollar, I’ll do some or all of my perfectly middlebrow blues,” he sings on “In the Thick of It”: “I’m painting my album in ivory hues.” It’s a sobering portrayal of the transactional relationship between artist and audience, but “middlebrow blues” hits especially hard, less like a moment of self-flagellation and more like he’s come to realize that indie rock is a promise unfulfilled, a paradise corrupted.

Okkervil River’s breakout album imagined a black-sheep boy’s picaresque through a knotted landscape, but Nothing Special doesn’t have to imagine anything. Instead, Sheff draws from experience: from triumphs as well as failures, arrogance as well as comeuppance. The title track is a remembrance of his friendship with Okkervil River’s late drummer Travis Nelsen, detailing how it turned the band, in its final years, into a folie à deux. (“We fed off each other with this self-deprecation thing,” he told Stereogum. “I gave him the sort of hoity-toity seal of approval I think he craved, he gave me ‘sweat of the brow.’”) The song is a sad, spectral waltz, as Sheff reflects on their relationship and tries to break free: “It’s time to say it’s done, I’m not getting what I want,” he sings. “When I’ve lost it, I’m finally free to be nothing special.” Nelsen died in 2020.

Lots of artists eulogize fallen friends and bandmates, but the song hits a little harder coming from such a self-reflexive songwriter. That’s part of what made Sheff such an interesting presence in the aughts: Just as the National reminded us we were new adults in the world, and the Decemberists urged us to make room for whimsy in our grown-up lives, Okkervil River showed us that we were all still music fans at heart. Sheff spoke to us in his role as a working musician, which affirmed our role as audience, and he spoke to us often in the language of pop songs. He knew we’d know all the songs he mentions on “Plus Ones” and he trusted us to catch the significance of “John Allyn Smith Sails” mutating into “Sloop John B.” This was a language worth speaking, he told us, but now he’s not so sure. He’s got his doubts, but rather than cynicism, Nothing Special finds reassurance in those uncertainties.

Nothing Special surveys all that’s come before—a long and fruitful career, but he’ll still lose money touring—and decides that “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas” and “Westfall” and “No Hidden Track” and “Black” and “To Love Somebody” were nothing special. He’s nothing special, and neither are we. What’s remarkable is that Sheff makes that realization sound freeing. It’s a relief to shed those expectations, to escape the weight of great import, and these songs make relief sound like a legitimate creative engine. So when he closes the album by declaring, “When you do it all for free, it doesn’t feel like work,” he condemns an industry that’s dead set on bankrupting its artists. But maybe there’s a little hope in those lines, too, as we all let go of the way things were and try to imagine the way things might be.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Will Sheff - Nothing Special Music Album Reviews Will Sheff - Nothing Special Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on October 26, 2022 Rating: 5


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