Black Sheep Boy
o try to make a great album, you have to be ambitious. To succeed, you have to sound like you're anything but. You might want to do something like take a short song from someone kind of known, like Tim Hardin, say, and spend an entire album developing Hardin's character. It might sound a spot pretentious, but if you do it honestly, then it's pure, and if you never overorchestrate or oversing or overact and generally keep an even keel, it'll be beautiful. And if you're better at what you do than anyone else, then your album will be perfect. At least that's how it works for Okkervil River and Black Sheep Boy.
In a formal sense, this album contains as much interesting material as anything I've heard in some time. Will Sheff's writes prose poetry, not lyrics-more Robert Haas than Robert Zimmerman-and in the context of this album, the style rewards more than any other option would have. The lack of tight end rhyme and traditional meter removes any feeling of a sing-song pattern. Sheff's words, instead, take on the feel of a storyteller, and his scraggly voice draws you in.
Calling this lovely language "storytelling" takes away from its lyrical flight. Sheff injects poetry into his words through repetition and rhythm, sometimes as interdependent traits. As a simple poetic device, alliteration suits the bill, with lines like "To feel their feelings flash and finally fade away, in one fabulous and fiery display" forming moments of finesse.
The more you listen, though, the more you realize the complexity of Sheff's structure. "In a Radio Song" repeats phrases immediately for rhythmic effect, but the preceding song, "For Real" repeats the words "real" and "really," playing with the concepts of actuality, sincerity, and emphasis. When the closing line sums up the feeling of rejecting "the things that really, really, really are behind," Sheff throws emphasis to the fore, but relies on the earlier wordplay to reinforce the sincerity and truth of the moment. He also repeats phrases for thematic impact. Beds and curtains recur, suggesting both the nightmarish complexity of this world as well as the longed-for rest of the album's title character. The concept catches up to the Boy's lost love when he angrily suggests, "Take your midnight trip. I know you've dreamed it." He suggests she goes to her new lover, but to do so in a world fraught with peril (some of it born in his own bitter, passionate, dying heart).
You've had enough close reading by now, I know, and I'd love to do this all day, but, my goodness, the music's just as fantastic. It's idiosyncratic-Americana-rock but less country; a little dour but not basking in its own melancholy, slow but not downbeat-and it relies on many of the same formal elements that the lyrics do (and like them, never turns passion into melodrama).
The album opens with an acoustic cover of Hardin's title track. That quietness and subtlety are immediately challenged less than a minute into "For Real," with its electric crashes and unforgettable hook. Okkervil River shows a great use of dynamics throughout this piece (and the album as a whole) by shifting perfectly, and never leaping excessively nor using the changes to create a sentimentality that overdoes it.
By my count, the album contains about 16 or so instruments (plus field recordings), yet Okkervil River rarely feels like an act that couldn't be sitting at the same campfire as you and Sheff (assuming, of course, you had electricity for the appearances of that flavor of guitar). That assortment, however, allows the band to shift moods smoothly, occasionally echoing a progression or arpeggiation from an earlier song with a slight change so that the band can reference an earlier song even while pushing the album's concept forward.
I've listened to this album more than anything else released this year, and I still don't feel like I've fully explored its depths. Initially, I was taken in by the compelling and well-crafted music, but I found myself being drawn more and more toward the lyrics, which depict complex characters who draw out conflicted emotions from their audience. As much as I want to gush (more than I have), it almost feels inappropriate to praise this album; I'd rather explore it and, sorely and hopefully, feel it.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: APRIL 4 - APRIL 10, 2004