Of all the ways to appreciate Will Sheff's long-running Okkervil River project, one of the most poignant and valuable may be to see it as a multi-part dissertation on interstitialism. Okkervil songs tend to be ones that deal in the effects of events that have already happened and they tend to take place at a time before those effects are fully realized or emotionally paid off. In a sense, the protagonist of any given song is examining something from the past, previously known or not, and bracing for the realization of what that thing will mean for them moving forward. In this realm of blurred lines, Sheff proves himself imminently capable time and again of defining the indefinable through deft symbology and conversational lyricism.
The eponymously titled "Okkervil River Song" appears as the closing number on the band's second LP Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See. In it, Sheff describes the river's water as "slow, silent, thick, and black" and the riverfront is a place where "gods were born and gods lay down to die." The imagery goes on to further sanctify the disposable monuments created by a recent and fundamentally broken past: the presence of cigarettes, old tires, plastic wrap, and used razors all paint the picture of a place that is affected by activity and yet apart from it as the narrator's companion tells him that "we've come from ugliness to find some refuge here." The river itself is a metaphor for nature's unyielding and uncomplaining observation of human activity, and this is made abundantly clear at several points in the song when the narrator feels the river staring back at him, its gaze effectively permanent and impenetrable. The Okkervil River of the song is a setting that has seen much but knows that human existence is but a moment, a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted trajectory into the future.
The Stage Names' stirring "Savannah Smiles" is a heart-rending meditation on the consequences of previously unknown trauma. The song's narrator Shan finds her daughter's diary and reads a page, lines that follow soon afterward describe her coping with an unspeakable new reality as she thinks "I just cannot believe, could do that to a child." The rest of the song is a reckoning of how this new knowledge creates far more questions than it answers: "What should I have done? … Is she someone I don't know at all? Is she someone I betrayed?" Shan is now caught between a past she didn't know about as it was happening, one where psychic wounds were likely opened under her own roof, and a future in which she needs to choose a course of action out of an array of options that all seem unthinkable, each of them either far too much or far too little, none of them offering a clear path to wellness.
Elsewhere on the somewhat distractingly meta "Okkervil River R.I.P.", Sheff gives himself over almost completely to references both to his own work and the work of others. The lyrics are a stew of regrets, half-truths, and tall tales that coalesce into a portrait of a man who has given up on life - not on "living" per se, but on the idea that life is an ideal that justifies its own ends. He describes himself as being "escorted from the premises for being a mess," and it doesn't sound hard to believe as the increasingly cynical and pitiful barrage of words congeals around the loping stride of a jaunty vocal melody. At the conclusion of the song, he yells at a bar band to "play that cover song again" and it puts his mindset into sharp focus: this is a man realizing that he has made more wrong choices than right ones, that he sank into life's dilemmas much more than he swam through them. His best way to not dwell on that sad state of affairs is to hear a song from the past that cheers him up even while he is tied to the boulders of missed chances and unsure of how to move on past his own sense of failure.
All these characters and elements are ones that symbolically dissect the uneasy handshake that occurs in the present between a dark past and an uncertain future. They are all, in their own ways, aware of their own temporal limitations and they know that time is running out for them to make everything right, if such a thing is even possible. Sheff seems supernaturally preoccupied with the reality of the spaces in between, the times of uncertainty where anything is possible but most of the available courses aren't the correct ones. His creations are de facto literary as much as they are pure songcraft, any of these themes or characters could show up in the pages of the proverbial "great American novel", although admittedly that concept would first need to be stripped of its outdated sentimentality and retrofitted with a pragmatism befitting the 21st Century.
Perhaps some of the motivation for this running motif is the band's arguable status as a rotational group of players who each join Sheff for a limited time. A casual glance at their Wikipedia entry shows that neither of the other two founding members are still with the group and that the band's current five-member line-up is substantially outnumbered by the list of its former members (thirteen at the time of this writing). In a sense Okkervil River as a band is one that itself could be said to primarily exist in the in-between, from album to album and tour cycle to tour cycle the roster is likely to change in part or in whole. As a "band" that is just this side of being purely a vehicle for one man's songwriting, Okkervil is very well predisposed to operate in a netherworld between full-fledged bandhood and the mercenary mentality of hired studio players. A fact which may be just as well since Sheff seems happy to churn out lyrics and characters who seem built for screaming into that abyss of confusion.
Whether Sheff is writing about suicide attempts ("John Allyn Smith Sails") or celebrity scars ("Famous Tracheotomies"), he is very often teetering on a highwire between past and present, in danger of plummeting unceremoniously to an unforgiving ground. His songwriting world is all gray with no black or white, every idea is nebulous and most mistakes exist in a space that is nothing if not tragicomic. It is said that life isn't about the destination but the journey - Okkervil River takes it a step further and uses songwriting to lay out an argument that there is not even a journey, only endless sidequesting. And while Sheff doesn't seem to be convinced that the fog of ambiguity is always worth the trouble, he makes a more than compelling case that recognizing its pervasiveness inside all the tiny interstitial spaces between causes and effects can be its own reward.