Will Sheff has played many legendary solo shows over the last decade+, but it’s always been packed with covers and material from his band, Okkervil River. Now, for the first time, he’s setting out on his own with a debut solo album called Nothing Special. That defeatist title gives an inkling of the themes and influence on the record, which Sheff explains further:
“When I was just a kid, I got caught up in the dream of being a rock and roll star. Like so many other young people, I fell in love with the idea of being called to this glorious path outside of ordinary life. And I ended up in a band with people who felt this same call – especially our brilliant drummer Travis Nelsen, who was like a brother to me. We would trade tales of hilarious antics and outrageous excess and tragic death like they were almost scripture. Travis and I fell out painfully, and he died in the early weeks of lockdown. I think a big part of ‘Nothing Special’ centres around grieving for him, grieving for everything my friends have lost, grieving for the rock and rock and roll myth, and trying to open my eyes to a more transcendent reality.”
Well, “Estrangement Zone” is certainly after the dream of being a rock star has faded, and all that’s left is Sheff staring down the barrel of a cold, lonely future haunted by regrets. The alt-rock sound and classic songwriting we expect from him is there at the song’s core, but it is imbued with electronic textures and intriguing guitar filters that separate it from Okkervil River’s work – and make the pain in his heart all the more palpable. There’s a strange majesty here, his every thought is expanded by the stately arrangement, and the weight is transferred audibly to the listener as we trace his trudge into mental isolation – into the “Estrangement Zone”.
The video for “Estrangement Zone” enhances the sci-fi elements of the track, with Sheff saying: “I think of the ‘Estrangement Zone’ video as a kind of magical spell the crew and I were trying to cast — a parable about endings and beginnings happening simultaneously.”