Okkervil River

Black Sheep Boy

(Jagjaguwar; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 6 April 2005

Will Sheff probably doesn't look the way you'd figure the guy who soundtracked your mopier autumn afternoons with Down The River Of Golden Dreams might look. Gifted with a husky country-rock voice as worn in as Willie Nelson’s bandana, his flailing stage presence is more Napoleon Dynamite than Gram Parsons. Sheff is all swinging hair and emphatic gestures in front of the microphone, and his equally energetic band’s new full-length is an older, wiser and far more ambitious take on their past material.

There are too many ingredients flowing down the Okkervil River to corner them in one genre --- traces of early R.E.M.’s pop sensibilities and Neutral Milk Hotel’s reality-bending imagery are most prevalent, but they hardly stop there. Though the band hails from Austin, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they’d spent some time in Omaha (Saddle Creek territory), as well, sharing quite a bit with Tim Kasher and his side project, The Good Life. Like that band’s recent Album Of The Year, Okkervil River use the vein of acoustic country-folk to express the joy and pain of young love without cliché or studied irony.

The title track and album opener is a tasteful Tim Hardin cover that serves to introduce the album's recurring protagonist. Using the outcast character as narrator, Black Sheep Boy is a loose concept album tied up with themes of unrequited love and the anguish of young adulthood. With lines like, "In a cold little mirror you were grown / By a black little wind you were blown,” images of Mangum's two-headed boy tapping on his jar are not far behind, but Sheff manages to craft his own vision here. The songs alternate between first and third-person, following the circumstances of the black sheep boy and the object of his affections, who loves a violent, uncaring “stone” instead.

Then comes “For Real," a dark and brooding opening to the record with Cobain palm mutes and taut choruses. The follow-up, “In A Radio Song,” is more in the spirit of M. Ward’s Transistor Radio than any kind of dig at the mainstream; thankfully, Black Sheep Boy is far too self-contained and self-conscious for that.

The lyrics avoid the tongue-in-cheek mythology of their tour partners The Decemberists, opting instead for metaphors (“A King and a Queen”; “A Stone”) and excerpts from hauntingly powerful streams-of-conversation. In “Black,” the sheep boy pleas desperately with his lover to take revenge on her hurtful suitor, singing: “And if I could tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws, and erase his name for good, don’t you know that I would?” Sheff mines deeper emotional territory than ever before, grounding his fantastical boy in a world of darkened houses and darker passions that effortlessly weave together.

More importantly, the band knows how to turn a great pop hook, riding the Wurlitzer to glory on “Black” and the bouncy “All The Latest Toughs.” “Song For Our So-Called Friend” adds country flavor and a tender horn section to the mold of Belle & Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher.” The balance between the upbeat numbers and their slower, more atmospheric counterparts is a decidedly natural one, in no small part thanks to the thematic current that resurfaces throughout with turns of the volume knob.
Black Sheep Boy comes to an end with “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” a slow builder that ascends into full-blown rock and roll glory, leaving us with more of a sympathetic plea ("I am waiting, you know that I am / Calmly waiting to make you my lamb") than a resolution.

With Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River have made the kind of minor classic that will inspire obsessive-compulsive love affairs with the lucky people who stumble upon it. There’s not a single terrible track, and the presence of a poignant, unifying storyline takes it more than just a step beyond the band’s peers: Black Sheep Boy dances circles around them. Dynamite, indeed.