This is a solo album that knows it’s a solo album, by an artist taking stock of his more than 20 years in the industry and gesturing toward the dystopia that the current music scene has become. While it’s often dire and occasionally humorous, it’s always more than clever. That this solo album is so good, so immersive, and so thoughtful only makes Okkervil River seem even deader. Back in 2007 Sheff mockingly called the group a “mid-level band,” but in retrospect that lyric sounds like hollow self-denigration from an artist on an upward trajectory. Fifteen years later, however, his self-assessments sound truly bleak. “You give me a dollar, I’ll do some or all of my perfectly middlebrow blues,” he sings on “In the Thick of It”: “I’m painting my album in ivory hues.” It’s a sobering portrayal of the transactional relationship between artist and audience, but “middlebrow blues” hits especially hard, less like a moment of self-flagellation and more like he’s come to realize that indie rock is a promise unfulfilled, a paradise corrupted.
Okkervil River’s breakout album imagined a black-sheep boy’s picaresque through a knotted landscape, but Nothing Special doesn’t have to imagine anything. Instead, Sheff draws from experience: from triumphs as well as failures, arrogance as well as comeuppance. The title track is a remembrance of his friendship with Okkervil River’s late drummer Travis Nelsen, detailing how it turned the band, in its final years, into a folie à deux. (“We fed off each other with this self-deprecation thing,” he told Stereogum. “I gave him the sort of hoity-toity seal of approval I think he craved, he gave me ‘sweat of the brow.’”) The song is a sad, spectral waltz, as Sheff reflects on their relationship and tries to break free: “It’s time to say it’s done, I’m not getting what I want,” he sings. “When I’ve lost it, I’m finally free to be nothing special.” Nelsen died in 2020.
Lots of artists eulogize fallen friends and bandmates, but the song hits a little harder coming from such a self-reflexive songwriter. That’s part of what made Sheff such an interesting presence in the aughts: Just as the National reminded us we were new adults in the world, and the Decemberists urged us to make room for whimsy in our grown-up lives, Okkervil River showed us that we were all still music fans at heart. Sheff spoke to us in his role as a working musician, which affirmed our role as audience, and he spoke to us often in the language of pop songs. He knew we’d know all the songs he mentions on “Plus Ones” and he trusted us to catch the significance of “John Allyn Smith Sails” mutating into “Sloop John B.” This was a language worth speaking, he told us, but now he’s not so sure. He’s got his doubts, but rather than cynicism, Nothing Special finds reassurance in those uncertainties.