Isn’t it exciting when a relatively unknown, but critically-acclaimed band goes from making a great record to an even greater one? In the fairly recent music past, this has been the case with Wilco, The Shins, and Radiohead (all name-checked for a reason, but we’ll get to that). Now, it is also true of Okkervil River. 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams was a grand journey along a road littered with flowers, knives, jewels, and the blood left over from broken hearts. The music moved the stories along so beautifully that one would have to have a heart of stone not to be pulled in to the emotional depth and intellectual wonder of Will Sheff & Co.’s creation. Okkervil River takes the quiet largeness of Down the River and does what any truly great band will do: they move forward with confidence and purpose, expanding on some ideas while taking left turns that perhaps confuse at first but end up sounding seamless and as natural as breathing.
Black Sheep Boy is rife with insecurities, bad decisions, jealousy, cheating, and the alienation of always trying to force a connection with the wrong people. The narrator through most of the recording, the Black Sheep Boy (set loose in the world), tries desperately to find a mate in a woman who has chosen her own ill-fitted partner. The allegory of the Black Sheep Boy achieves weight by relating the larger story to the specifics of the individual human life. We feel alone, angry, or sad. We look for love and are rejected. We choose a quick or slow self-destruction. Perhaps there is a redemption, or at least short moments of it. Will Sheff chronicles the human heart with an accuracy that is painful and always poetic (there could be a separate review on Will Sheff the Poet, but there is only so much space here to fill).
Like James Mercer from the Shins, Mr. Sheff throws out words that will send the careful listener running for her or his dictionary while still tapping a beat along with the superb melodies. “He lifts his head, handsome, horned, magisterial / He’s the smell of the moonlight wisteria / He’s the thrill of the abecedarian” sings Mr. Sheff in “So Come Back, I Am Waiting”, all the while musically building towards a finale worthy of an epic Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello song. In “Get Big”, which should go down as one of the finest male-female duets ever recorded (with its country flavoring and dark theme, it belongs on a pirate Nashville radio station, played after midnight), the song provides a fresh perspective (at least as far as songwriting goes) on cheating and relationships suffering through a dull period. The man sits and waits while the woman goes out to have her fun. His response is the title, which is the sad acknowledgment of how some use infidelity as an ironic means to becoming more adult-like. Will Sheff sings, “And I can’t say / Why each day / Doesn’t quite fit the space / We saved for it”. Amy Annelle, sounding tired and lost, replies, “But if that space now demands / That you throw up both your hands / That you call it quits…”. The ellipsis, both in the lyric book and in Ms. Annelle’s singing, is just one small indication of the brutal subtlety Okkervil River applies in this opus.
Elsewhere, there seem to be almost real-time results of the influence of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born in the rocking stunner, “For Real”. The song tightens up the heavy-handed (albeit thrilling) guitar droning running through Wilco’s “Spiders (Kid Smoke)”, adding a vocal delivery that is so biting it feels as if the spit is flying directly in your face. “Black” takes all the best parts of Rhett Miller and the Old 97s, mixes it a bit with the incessant energy of X, and becomes the best song about exacting revenge (“You should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours!”) you’ll hear all summer. “A Stone” wraps folk strumming in a Neutral Milk Hotel blanket and shows off Mr. Sheff’s vocals, which rival all the beautiful, odd, and powerful singers, among them one Thom Yorke.
Consistently excellent (and with gorgeous artwork! don’t download this one!!), Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy is a record that stuns on first listen, then manages the elusive — it sinks deep into your soul. Combining lyrical imagery galore with musicians (Howard Draper, Jonathan Meiburg, Travis Nelson, Zachary Thomas, Seth Warren and a slew of extras) who never miss an opportunity to add beauty to the world, this CD proves just how great rock and roll can be when it stretches to both ends of the art spectrum: intellectualism and physicality/emotionalism. Yes, there’s a story and it is often allegorical, but any single song can be pulled out and played to impress a wider audience. Thus, another great band is born.
If a finer record than Black Sheep Boy is released in 2005, it will be a very, very good year.