The iJamming! Weekly Download: Okkervil River

You know how occasionally you are so struck by a new song you have to hear it over and over again? And you know how even more occasionally it transpires that the artist behind that song has been making music for years, and you’d just never heard of them?

Such is the case with Okkervil River, from Austin, TX. A few weeks ago, I noticed their single ‘The President’s Dead’ in the middle of the KEXP Music That Matters South By Southwest Preview Podcast. KEXP must have been equally impressed, because a week or so later they made it their Podcast Song Of The Day. And since then, I’ve barely been able to stop playing it.

‘The President’s Dead’ is not some youthfully exuberant wishful thinking regarding George W. Bush. It’s about the assassination of an anonymous leader, sung from the shocked perspective of someone who hears the news on the radio and predicts that we’ll all remember the moment thirty years later. Shades of JFK of course, but the lyrics take enough liberties with the details of 1963 that this story could be past, present or future. And while the record label website claims that the narrator is “a young Republican,” I don’t really hear that; I hear Will Sheff’s words sung by an everyman…

“On a beautiful day, I was waking up and I was lying in bed with my girlfriend, and the eggs on the plate and the bacon hissing, and the coffee was great and there was spring on the wind,”

…whose reverie is all the more acute for having just imagined his own demise…

“If you died right then well you’d know you’d be missed but there’s no better state to cease to exist.”

…And who therefore can’t bring himself to criticize the dead President.

“The sea doesn’t dry and the sky isn’t split, but friends it just seems so wrong don’t it? A shot from the crowd and a shot in the head, the President’s lying on the tarmac dead.”

The sleeve to ‘The President’s Dead.’ The record company Jagjaguwar has made the single available for free streaming/download.

These lyrics are delivered in a modestly paced Dylan-esque stream-of-consciousness acoustic style that pulls you in and holds you tight through verse after verse before exploding in a brief rocking finale, wrapping everything up in precisely two-minutes and forty seconds. The effect is stunning. It’s maybe the best song I’ve heard all year.

As it turns out, the either 6- or 7-piece Okkervil River have been recording for the Jagjaguwar label since 2002, with three albums and as many EPs to their name. But after listening to the music available for streaming or download on both label and band web sites, I haven’t heard anything in the back catalogue (most of which I would term folk-punk) that comes close to the majestic ‘The President’s Dead.’

Nor is it clear that ‘The President’s Dead’ represents some second dawn for Okkervil River. The group just played South By Southwest, but then they live in Austin; it’s not like it took any effort. Their own web site is so out of date I’m not sure if the ‘upcoming shows’ list applies to this year or 2005. Their myspace page is unmoderated and therefore saturated with spam messages. There’s not a single picture on any of the sites that’s good enough quality to reproduce. The whole set-up seems purposefully unprofessional.

Certainly, nobody seems that bothered about making money. ‘The President’s Dead’ was released commercially as a two-song, non-album single at the end of last year, but it’s also available as a free download from the label’s web site. Is that stupidity? Or selflessness? Perhaps Okkervil River and Jagjaguwar simply believe that, having made a song this good, everyone should own a copy. Get yours now.

‘The President’s Dead’ MP3 (stream or download)

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October 2021