Album Review: Will Sheff – Nothing Special

[ATO Records; 2022]

Going all the way back to Okkervil River’s debut Bedroom EP back in 1998, frontman and principal songwriter Will Sheff has had a habit of turning ordinary events into surreal treatises on emotional vulnerability and the varying ways in which we find hope and are offered heartache every day. A writer whose words lead listeners down paths covered in densely crowded allegories and wandering analogies, Sheff aims to breakdown enormous themes into small moments that echo with a sustained humanity – but which are often viewed through a lens of fractured, though thoroughly captivating, narratives. And from the first few moments of Sheff’s debut solo outing, Nothing Special, his knack for carefully curated wonder and gently melodic enchantment is shown to be ever evolving, and one of indie rock’s most valuable assets.

Opener “The Spiral Season” begins with a ghostly fingerpicked sound, Sheff’s voice shivering in the early morning air, a presence easing us into a world of self-destruction and catharsis. The song eventually blooms into a swooping whirlwind that carries us away through the clouds, giving us hope in the face of the apocalypse. We’re not dealing in half measures here; he settles for nothing less than ecstasy in the face of devastation, offering an alternative perspective that perfectly captures the radiant beauty of the world around us. If we let it all go, maybe the darkness can be shed as well. And that idea of putting the past behind you runs through the whole record, allowing him to refocus on what he wants to do and not be concerned with expectations connecting him to the history of Okkervil River.

But the album isn’t solely concerned with mechanisms of letting go; it also considers what the future may hold; of experiences yet to come and moments unrevealed that will shape Sheff in ways that aren’t initially apparent. “In the Thick of It”, with its gossamer piano lines and unfurling melodies, asks us to embrace change and to be resolutely aware of the world and our place in it as each minute passes. Leaving uncertainty behind, he achieves a sort of ruminative transcendence, a feeling of possibility unfelt for years. There is a shambling beauty to the track, anchored by a voice whose only desire is that we stay with him for just a little while as he figures all this shit out. His revelations are patient, tied to self-discovery and personal development. And with the subdued hues found in the guest vocals from Cassandra Jenkins, this track is about as strong a statement of intent as you’re likely to hear all year.

By stepping outside the confines of Okkervil River, Sheff found himself surrounded by a widening circle of collaborators and would go on to take a backseat during the initial tracking sessions for Nothing Special, leaving that work to musicians who shared his musical affections. He was able to see the record through a wider framework and wasn’t so determined to perfect everything himself. This left him open to necessary shifts and subtle changes that came with each take and allowed him to produce the record without centering it around himself. “My number one priority was that I didn’t want anything to feel overworked,” he says. “I didn’t want to be filling space for the sake of filling space, to have all these different elements jockeying for your attention.” Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way to find what you are looking for.

Between the star-struck journeys of “Estrangement Zone”, founded upon a bounding percussive rhythm and the eventual release of miasmic guitar lines, and “Holy Man”, wherein Sheff attempts to develop a balanced perspective regarding the duality of humanity’s selfish and altruistic tendencies, he finds a way to examine both without losing focus on what makes us capable of such extreme shifts in act and intention. These songs settle into a sound that feels loose but practiced, a soft roar that gives him plenty of opportunity to explore these themes in a relatively controlled environment. His voice is always the guide, a quivering light that naturally bends the music to its own desires – though there are moments when it recedes, giving space for the other musicians to impart their own unique imprints on these tracks.

At times, the measured approach he takes on some songs falls short of supplying the momentum needed for each part to hit in the exact way he wanted, but for the most part, Sheff creates a landscape of gentle dynamics that grow until they release their stored energy through unexpected eruptions of kinetic movement. “Like the Last Time” starts slowly and softly before exploding in a frenzy of thundering drums, distorted guitars, and multi-tracked vocals, a volatile brew of influences that imagines J. Mascis fronting Mercury Rev. Through all the peaks and valleys riven into the album, Sheff’s search for meaning – for identity, and the need to start something new and free from expectation – leads him to redefine aspects of both the past and the future and to settle into a happy middle ground where he is free from the pressures of either.

Perhaps this is best exemplified on closer “Evidence”, a song that sees Sheff finding solace in finally understanding the necessity of letting go. He sings: “The world’s holding you realer and realer / realer and realer / you sweet, sweet feeler / can you feel it?” Throughout Nothing Special, he attempts to balance the pressures of what he has done with the expectations of what he thinks people want him to do. Here, though, he simply finds comfort in what he wants to do, in what makes him feel good. And in those moments, nothing is special, and everything is special. And there’s something wonderfully reassuring in knowing that.