Black Sheep Boy

Okkervil River

Jagjaguwar, 2005

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


Really, there’s no better way to describe this album, the fourth from Austin, Texas indie rockers Okkervil River, than intensely insane; from frontman Will Sheff’s caterwauling, nearly unhinged vocals, to his perpetually poignant narratives, Black Sheep Boy is all pure, unbridled, hysterical insanity from start to finish, and it’s nothing short of wonderful.

The album itself is refreshingly ambitious, centered thematically around 60s folk musician Tim Hardin, who penned the album’s title track while visiting his family in his hometown. During the visit, the reformed junkie was offered heroin, resuming the addiction that would eventually kill him in 1980.

Stemming from its crisply stunning folk-pop opener “Black Sheep Boy,” which stays fairly true to the original’s sparse acoustic accompaniment and evocative vocals, the album’s remaining tracks revolve around the allegory of the Black Sheep Boy as he is unloosed into the world and attempts to achieve some semblance of humanity, charted throughout by Sheff with an aching poetic precision. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Cleanly contradicting the warm swelling piano of “Black Sheep Boy,” “So Real” is instead overflowing with energy. Sharp stabs of guitar and a tightly wound bass line punctuate a soaring, near-violent vocal delivery as Sheff repeats the words “real” and “really” to create a sort of chilling haze, our lives numbed stemming from an obsession with reality.

Meanwhile, the warm pop beat of “Black” seems at odd with scathing lines like “But if I could tear his throat / and spill his blood between my jaws and erase his name for good / Don’t you know that I would?,” unfolding the bleak tale of a man struggling to connect with his lover who was abused as a child. Yet Sheff’s electric energy, all ratcheting frustration and ardent devotion, coupled with the track’s jangling keyboards and bouncing bass, turn it into a subtle, if somewhat twisted, love song.

Black Sheep Boy is brilliant in its dynamism, propping the propulsion of “Black” against tracks like “Get Big,” a swaying, downbeat duet with Amy Annelle that chronicles a lover’s unthinking infidelity in her attempts to become more adult-like. Similarly, the sparse, shuffling beat of “A Stone” belies its despairing lyrics: “You love white veins / You love hard grey / The heaviest weight / The clumsiest shape / The earthiest smell / The hollowest tone,” Sheff croons to describe a would-be lover who is drawn instead a cold-hearted man. His voice is forlorn against flickers of piano, yet such palpable despair is all the more beautiful for its bare humanity.

Meanwhile, the epic “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” brings the allegory to its incredible, menacing climax: “He lifts his head, handsome, horned, magisterial / He’s the smell of the moonlight wisteria / He’s the thrill of the abecedarian,” Sheff sings, his vocals-slow-burning against crescendoing horns and swelling strings, driving the track towards its redemptive finale.

Black Sheep Boy is a truly unparalleled album, achingly beautiful in its sustained dynamism and complexity. It stuns on first listen, and only continues to reveal deeper layers, ultimately standing as a triumph of the human spirit itself.

Rating: A

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© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Jagjaguwar, and is used for informational purposes only.