River of Screams

Okkervil singer Will Sheff pens some killer songs

Music Features Okkervil River
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Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote “Westfall,” a chilling murder ballad about the slaying of a young girl, more than six years ago. Yet even now, Okkervil audiences scream every word—indistinguishable faces channeling their repressed urges into a macabre sing-a-long that climaxes with the song’s repeated final line: “evil don’t look like anything.”

“Horrible things happen, and you look at them and you wonder, ‘How did that happen?’” Sheff says. “Here we are in the normal world that’s boring and plain and seems to follow the same rules every day, and yet these … moments where it seems like reality’s ripped open by something so brutal and surprising and sudden, they happen right down the street from us.”

Dixie Chicks’ revenge anthem “Goodbye Earl,” Eminem’s “Stan” and Nick Cave’s 1996 album Murder Ballads.

“The murder ballad forces people to ask moral questions of themselves in a way that reading a news item does not,” says Graeme Thomson, author of new book I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, As Related in Popular Song. “Through the guise of entertainment you can hijack people into reflecting about the nature of humanity in general and their own humanity in particular.”

Sheff has intimate experience with violence, having stabbed a man at a New Year’s Eve party in 2005 (it was an accident, and it wasn’t fatal). He’s also an amateur folk historian—his series of articles for Audiogalaxy discussed “the dark side of folk”—and besides composing both “Westfall” and an earlier, folkier ode to deadly obsession called “Kathy Keller,” he and Okkervil River have covered classics like “Omie Wise” and “Dreadful Wind and Rain.” On the band’s newest albums, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, Sheff’s razor-sharp insight shifts from violence and toward the perils and pressures of fame. But there’s no denying his bloody body of work.

“What I’m hoping is that people walk away from the songs feeling … a subtler kind of violence,” Sheff says, “that they feel uncomfortable and like a lot of their feelings have been stirred up and they’ve been entertained—but in a way that made them feel a little sick.”

Check out Paste's modern murder ballad playlist

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