Seconds
Okkervil River - A Stone



stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

Four thirty two. Not the time I finished this article, but nice try. This is a Seconds feature, and 4:32 is the exact second at which “A Stone,” the bruised and brilliant lament at the heart of Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy stops being a touching “indie-rock ballad” and becomes a bona fide eighth wonder. In 272 seconds, Will Sheff and his merry men destroy the world, and then build it back up again. With horns.

Alright, that’s a little hyperbolic—be still your beating keys—but the emotional impact of this song on some listeners is hard to describe in the realms of the literal. “A Stone” has a life force all of its own. It causes grown men to weep on public transport. It causes diehard Okkervil River fans to physically leave rooms in which it is playing, because they just can’t take it. It has… an effect on people.

And what causes that effect? Well, mostly 4:32—to which we will return in due course—but without the previous 4:31, 4:32 would be nothing; nothing but a couple of numbers. “A Stone” is about as well-written as it is possible for a song to be. I don’t have personal access to information regarding Will Sheff’s communication records, but I would imagine that after writing the lyrics to this song, something along the lines of this conversation took place:

Chaucer: Whatte the swyve?
Shakespeare: Cursed be he that moved my bones! Is this a conference call?
Sheff: Check the deeds of property, ye churles, because you just got OWNED.

This is possibly an exaggeration, but the sheer control Sheff has over his lyrics is matched by few in modern music. Every verse reveals no more or less than it needs to; the song grows organically, painted in soft strokes, perfectly suited to the singer’s tender croak. Around him, a lone acoustic asserts itself against a slow but insistent rhythm, finding its feet by the first major lyrical shift from the addressed to the addresser. And from the third verse onward, they become something very special indeed. Ideally, I would just quote every line from “I think I believe” to the end, type “QED, bitches” and go make a sandwich, but I suspect closer analysis is demanded.

So observe the dense interlocking of rhymes, both end- and internal-. The wonderful extension of the metaphor in which the stone is a man the song’s “you” loves, strong, silent, and unattainable, to the image of a castle built from ten thousand such closed-off, hard-hearted lovers. Above all the strange, unexpected sympathy Sheff brings to his portrayal of the man who stands between him and his love. What other writer, in a song wholly concerned with a love blocked by the loved one’s vain attempts to crack a sullen stone, would take the time to even consider what would happen “if stones could dream”?

But this is merely the springboard to Okkervil’s leap into greatness. Fom the castle of stones to a quiet admiration for “the queen’s daughter… lovely, and stubborn, and brave,” this is a perfectly-condensed reflection of the “you” whose love we have been following till now. The drums drop to a barely audible brush, while Sheff’s voice glides up over sparse bass and an intimate tremble of guitar: “And I think that I know / The bitter dismay / Of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day / And she turned him away / To remember some knave / Who once gave just one rose / One day / Years ago.” It’s 4:32, by the way. And the drums are back, along with the most longing a horn section could ever be expected to convey. Time to admit it, in Sheff’s own words: you love “A Stone.” QED, bitches.


By: Richard O’Brien
Published on: 2007-10-03
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