The Reviewing Refuses To Stop: Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy

(This is original content printed here and submitted to Cokemachineglow as part of my application. A final, revised version of this has since been published on CMG.)

Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy (Download For Real)

Will Sheff in the flesh is not what you’d expect from the guy who soundtracked your mopier autumn afternoons with 2003’s “Down The River Of Golden Dreams.” 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, far more ambitious take on their past material.

There are too many ingredients flowing down the Okkervil River to corner them in one genre, with traces of early R.E.M.’s pop sensibilities, Neutral Milk Hotel’s reality-bending imagery, and maybe even a little Nirvana all present and accounted for. Though the band hails from Austin, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they’d spent some time in Saddle Creek Record’s Omaha as well. Okkervil River shares a lot with Tim Kasher and his side project, The Good Life. Like that band’s recent “Album Of The Year,” Okkervil River uses the vein of acoustic country-folk to express the joy and pain of young love without cliché or studied irony.

The second track on “Black Sheep Boy” is called “For Real.” It’s a dark, heavy way to start a melancholy 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” album than it is any kind of dig at the mainstream; “Black Sheep Boy” is far too self-contained and self-conscious for that. The title track and album opener is a tasteful Tim Hardin cover that serves to introduce the black sheep boy. 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 Neutral Milk Hotel’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.

The lyrics avoid the tongue-in-cheek mythology of their tour partners The Decemberists, opting instead for metaphors (“A King And A Queen” and “A Stone”) and excerpts from hauntingly powerful streams-of-conversation. In “Black,” the black 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 on this album, grounding his fantastical boy in a world of darkened houses and darker passions that weave together from song to song.

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.” Throughout, upbeat numbers rub shoulders with their slower counterparts, sequencing the narrative along with turns in the volume knob. “Black Sheep Boy” finally peaks with “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” a slow builder that ascends into full-blown rock and roll glory.

Okkervil River has become quite an accomplished band, and with “Black Sheep Boy,” has 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 poor track, and the presence of the unifying storyline takes it more than just a step beyond the band’s peers: “Black Sheep Boy” dances circles around them. Dynamite, indeed.