Forget Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens — Okkervil River's Will Sheff is one of the indie underground's strongest songwriters. Although he's toiled under the radar for years, with 2005's critical darling Black Sheep Boy (and its subsequent appendix), Sheff broke into music-geek consciousness and set the, er, stage for the band's latest full-length, The Stage Names.
Okkervil River doesn't waste any time getting started here, and unwieldy title aside, the opener, “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe,” is one of the best tracks Sheff's penned to date. The song seamlessly alternates between minimalist guitars and expansive arrangements featuring singing pianos, crashing symbols, and percussive effects that drop like bombs. The rest of The Stage Names is equally brilliant, but in a more subtle way that requires multiple listens to unearth. For every gorgeous midtempo track such as “Plus Ones,” there's a lilting acoustic ballad like “A Girl in Port,” which is captivating even as it slows the album's overall momentum. However, the biggest testament to Names' success might be the final track, “John Allyn Smith Sails,” where Sheff sings about lying in bed reading a piece of poetry written in 1931. Somehow he doesn't sound precious or pretentious, and this type of vulnerability permeates The Stage Names, making it a transcendent work of art.