A weighty first solo endeavor that confronts loss, life’s meaning, and the deceit of nostalgic longing.
Will Sheff, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and founder of Okkervil River, has been hinting at it for a while: his choice to call it a day with the band that he founded as a teenager in New Hampshire and delve into a solo career at 46. The line between a bandleader who writes the vast majority of a group’s material and a solo artist who enlists various people to play on records can be a blurry one. In this case, the enlisted musicians, all new and old friends, helped create Sheff’s solo debut in just a handful of sessions.
The prevailing intention of this sometimes dour album appears to be simplicity and brutal candor. Sheff has always been adept at alchemizing his life’s suffering into beautiful work, while not coming across as uniquely aggrieved, and ‘Nothing Special’ is no exception. As Okkervil River fans are aware, one of his greatest strengths is his artistic wordsmithery, precisely painting moments with evocative colors, objects, textures, and movement. He invokes images of fire, earth, water, and air, with special symbolism given to the sea. The Earth itself, he reminds us, is the love of our lives.
The lengthy, shimmering ‘Holy Man’ bears a remarkable resemblance to John Lennon’s ‘#9 Dream’ as Sheff encounters and communes with the divine. ‘Estrangement Zone’ is flowing and melodic. On ‘In The Thick Of It’ he sings quietly over mournful piano lines as though he is making a lo-fi demo in the middle of the night and doesn’t want to wake anyone in the house. He sounds like someone who has been emotionally stretched thin for too long but is determined to find higher meaning in his experiences (‘The Spiral Season’). Disillusionment with over twenty years of experience in the music industry is completely justified: “You give me a dollar / I’ll do some or all of my perfectly middlebrow blues.” ‘Nothing Special’ is the sort of waltzing medieval or Renaissance ballad where someone beloved inevitably dies by the last verse. This self-deprecating track is in fact about the loss of his longtime friend and bandmate Travis Nelsen, who died in 2020, and his own need to move on from the past. There are echoes of his experiences growing up in New Hampshire, which he has previously mined, but one gets the feeling that there are more lingering stories that he has not yet incorporated into his material.
Sheff says, “Working as Will Sheff, there was no back catalog, no history, no tradition. There was only freedom and possibility.” Taking a well-earned moment to step away from endless striving, he can relish the liberation of being “nothing special.”