I was hoping that I’d caught Will Sheff, lead singer and songwriter of Okkervil River, the morning after some jubilant rock ‘n’ roll debauchery. “Here’s a good story,” Sheff began. Was he getting ready to share with me a highlight of the previous evenings pre-show activities? Models? I wondered. Were Sheff and mates snorting gritty inhalants of indeterminate origin off the finely toned rumps of the beautiful, willing women of our country’s heartland? Well, in a word: no. The life of an up-and-coming touring band is not the stuff that dreams are made of. Instead Sheff giddily shared a story about heisting the Decemberists’ blended Starbucks drinks from the green room. This is the life of an opening band. Even when you can give the headliner a pretty good run for their money.
“It’s funny being the opening band. The Decemberists have this great rider where they get deli trays and hummus plates, all kinds of eats. We’re usually like the kid in Oliver Twist, except we’re begging for a few more PBR’s,” laughed Sheff.
But don’t take Sheff’s tale of decidedly lowbrow burglary as a lack of ambition. I’ve got a feeling that when Sheff and the rest of Okkervil River assume their proper place at the top of the indie rock feeding chain that it’s as likely as not that there will be some bare rumps and rough mornings. Much like the character that gives his name to Okkervil River’s latest album Black Sheep Boy, Sheff doesn’t seem at all opposed to a bit of over indulgence. In fact, Black Sheep Boy as both character and concept is most likely lurking below the placid surface of each one of us begging for the chance to come out and raise a little hell.
Beginning with 2000’s Stars Too Small to Use, Okkervil River has taken listeners on a progressively more interesting ride. Where that album had the ragged folk stylings of a band and songwriter trying to gain their footing within a sound that wanted to climb towards dynamic climaxes of but was ultimately just a bit of their reach, 2002’s Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See started to show Sheff and company as capable of pushing those peaks into surprisingly new territory both musically and lyrically. The sound was cacophonous at times, but it was heady stuff. Sheff was saddled with the tag of a “literary” lyricist, indeed his dark stories and struggling characters had a rare humanity that stuck around after the songs ended. It was 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams that really got the band noticed. Garnering positive reviews from such high brow critics as Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke, it seemed that Okkervil River might be one of those rare modern bands that got to do something most new bands can’t in these days of bottom line earnings: develop slowly and carefully into a band capable of producing enduring music. Case in point are the dueling versions of Down the River of Golden Dreams’ and Stars Too Small to Use‘s “The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion”. Dreams’ updated version shows a Sheff much more confident in his abilities as a singer, and the band much more capable of driving the song’s finishing coda straight into the rafters as opposed to just allowing it to hover in close-but-not-quite kind of way. Interestingly they did it by restraining the bombast of the first version.
2004 saw the release of the EP Sleep and Wake-Up Songs. In just five songs the band set some high expectations for the next full length. In particular “A Favor”, with its snowballing pace, new love of electric guitar, harmony, and Sheff belting out the penultimate lines of the song with a feverish disregard for his vocal chords, seemed to be hinting towards something new. There was clearly something brewing.
Graced with the customarily startling art work of William Schaff, Black Sheep Boy is the sound of a band hitting it’s stride, putting the pieces of past albums together with a vision of where those elements can go. It’s the sound of a band enjoying itself. It’s also Sheff’s most coherent vision to date.
“Well, we’ve definitely come a long way from the first record. I think Black Sheep Boy is our best record. It’s not necessarily our most accessible, but I love the songs the most. I somehow managed to do a lot of things that I’ve been trying to do and they’re more or less working this time around,” Sheff said. Many of those things Sheff was trying to do were achieved by distancing the band from the things they were comfortable with. “On Down the River of Golden Dreams we used a lot of organ. There was a horribly abused Hammond B3 at John Vanderslice’s studio [Tiny Telephone, where the album was recorded]. This thing had been like dunked in water. Its insides were simply not right and it made the most churny, choked sound. We loved it and probably went overboard by using it on almost every song on that album. So we had a rule this time around that there would be no organ. We would make a record with a far less keyboard-heavy sound.” Not that the keyboards are gone. Jonathan Meiburg’s use of piano and heavily effected Casio are still all over Black Sheep Boy; the record simply isn’t dominated by them. Instead, the band seems to have found the volume knob on the electric guitar’s amplifier.
The band has put so much distance between that keyboard-heavy sound and their current configuration that they’re touring with an electric guitarist for the first time. If the show I saw in San Francisco is any evidence, Okkervil River’s newest line-up not only goes after the new material with an unrestrained enjoyment, but is now more in control of the band’s older songs. Okkervil River’s current live set is all steadily building peaks and crescendos balancing precariously at their high points, dragged out, sustained, pushed, into a gleefully head bobbing zone that can get even the most jaded scenester smiling.
Is it as simple as Sheff finally coming to terms with the duties of being the frontman and songwriter, a focal point both on record and on tour? To a certain degree, yes. “I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me. I think I got to a point where I decided that I wouldn’t let what I want to do or be, be dictated by others. I wasn’t going to be pushed into a particular box.” The popular box for Okkervil River is the one labeled “alt-country”. This may simply be because it’s a facile one and critically lazy. “You know, I’m a Yankee, born in New Hampshire. There’s not a southern bone in my body. I only moved to Austin about six years ago. I just don’t get the alt-country comparisons. I mean, I’ve still never heard Whiskeytown and I only heard Uncle Tupelo a few months ago and, frankly, I hated it. If anything, on Black Sheep Boy I was actively trying to pinpoint any country leanings and eliminate them. I think people hear an eclectic selection of instruments that includes harmonica, accordion, mandolin, and automatically make assumptions about the music.” Take note, critics: the “Okkervil River as country influenced pop rock” has overtaken the “Interpol = neo-Joy Division” equation as lazy cop out.
Certainly the second song on Black Sheep Boy, “For Real”, buries any notions of Okkervil River as a dreamy float through a stylized musical South. The song is loud, exuberant, and graphic in its description of an emotional state both detached from reality and aggressively eager to reconnect with it. In many ways “For Real” is the essence of Black Sheep Boy. “I was playing with the notion of reality on that song, and really on most of this record. We’ve become so insulated now from real life that I think we’re convinced that what we see on TV is real life. We’re alienated from our basic selves. I mean violence has to be this ultra-realistic thing to be real to us. It’s like it’s truer in movies or video games than it is in real life. What’s real experience? We’re real obsessed. Are her breasts real? What’s the best reality TV Show? So I just wanted to see how many times I could squeeze the word real into the song,” Sheff said.
So who’s the Black Sheep Boy? Is Sheff’s creation based on a reality that the songs are trying to pry open for us? Is the Black Sheep Boy a construct trying to tell us about real experience? What’s to be made of this hoofed figure that keeps popping up? “The Black Sheep Boy is a fantastical character that crops up here and there on the album. In the lyrics pretty much anything in quotes is the voice of the Black Sheep Boy. I think a lot of the dirtier, rougher, more obtuse songs are the product of the Black Sheep Boy. But there’s an emotional center to the record that counteracts that ugliness. I knew people wouldn’t want to get too close to the songs if there was no heart, so there’s this middle portion of the record which is a kind of uncomplicated regard for emotion that people can come back to again and again. It’s a sappiness that endears and pushes away at the same time,” explained Sheff.
It’s this emotional center on the record that has some of Black Sheep Boy‘s most interesting imagery. Both “A King and a Queen” and “A Stone” contain fairytale imagery that conjures up a strange mixture of castles, magic, princes and princesses, and fantastical kingdoms built on tears and heartbreak. It’s a jarring transition from the nourish grit of “Black” and the struggling forgiveness in “Get Big” to black knights and princesses in dark towers. It works because it allows Sheff to mask his tales of human shortcomings in the guise of fairytales and fables, imagery that softens the blow of intractability that’s injected into so many of Sheff’s characters. “It’s the D&D portion of the record, ” Sheff joked, referencing the famously nerdy role-playing game. “That imagery is dire in some ways but it’s also fun and playful. We really had a lot of fun making this record and messing around with motifs. Hopefully that playfulness comes through.” Well, I probably wouldn’t think of Black Sheep Boy as a playful record. The music has a yearning quality bled into it by Sheff’s quirkily off-key voice that, coupled with the lyrically dark disposition of the songs, makes the record more of a weeper than the playful romp through a fantastical kingdom Sheff makes it out to be.
Not that Black Sheep Boy is without its lighthearted moments. The brief aside in the middle of exuberantly bouncy “The Latest Toughs” where Sheff asks the listener/reader to “pause and add your own intentions right here” because he doesn’t know “what notes you want to hear played” or “what subjects you want mentioned” falls somewhere between simple cop-out and a brilliant turning of the tables. “I don’t know what people want in a song. I have no idea. So I thought I’d leave a space where people could tell me what they wanted. I just love the idea of someone taking a pen out and actually writing what they wanted on those blank lines. We even provided enough space in the CD booklet to do that.”
Okkervil River is probably a long way away from the kind of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery made famous by others. But the heisting of Starbucks beverages from the headlining band is a start. It’s the kind of behavior that the Black Sheep Boy would approve of. “We live in such a super-moral time. Everyone’s giving everyone else the dirty eye, judging, saying I’m more moral than you are. It’s so sanctimonious. Our culture seems so obsessed with doing what we’re supposed to do. Part of this record is dealing with what we’re expressly told we’re not allowed to do and doing it anyway. At least it’s our decision at that point. People make the decision to do the wrong thing all the time and they’re still happy. It’s just so fascinating to me in all its religious connotations,” Sheff commented.
“Get Big” with its struggling tale of semi-forgiveness seems a perfect example of that behavior. Over a sweet boy/girl harmony, bubbling guitar line and a gentle slide guitar, the narrator professes a forgiveness to his partner’s “lost weekend,” simply asking that they “take their medicine and I won’t ask where you’ve been”. It’s the black sheep boy behavior that snickers inside us all, a combination of inappropriate actions and bad decisions that most of us grow out of. Most of us, but not all.
It’s no surprise that the behavior that Sheff describes is the kind of behavior that the album’s epigrammatic Richard Pryor quote espouses, “I ain’t trying to be no good. I’m happy.” “Yeah, I love that quote. It’s from a lost interview with Pryor where the interview got delayed and in the interim Pryor went and got totally fucked up. Just high out of his head and he started ranting about every taboo subject he could think of, race, sex, drugs, just cussing his head off, basically making the interview completely unusable for network TV. I just think Pryor is a genius, he elevated the form of stand-up comedy to a new level, but he’s his own contradiction and I love that. It’s part of this old blues idiom where the attitude is that I can do whatever I want because if there is a God then it’s just between us anyway.” Sounds very much like the behavior of a quintessential black sheep boy.
Ultimately Black Sheep Boy is about our distance from truth, and you can read truth as art or beauty or emotion or honesty or real life. Whatever definition you want to use it still escapes us, not that we’d ever admit it. That would be too real. Black Sheep Boy is this year’s first noble attempt at putting our current century’s directionless, meandering, vacuous fascination with ourselves into focus. It’s just a simple argument in favor of the duality that’s inside each and every one of us. Sometimes you’ve got to let a little bit of the naughty out in order to understand why it feels good to be good. Is it so wrong that Sheff and company are having such a good time doing it?