erasing clouds

Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy

reviewed by dave heaton

Okkervil River's last album Down the River of Golden Dreams was filled with people and their stories…people haunted by the past, people driven to the brink by their desires. Their majestic new album Black Sheep Boy feels just as sprawling, yet this time they've focused in on the stories of one person, the black sheep boy of the title. Using Tim Hardin's song "Black Sheep Boy" as the jump-off, singer/songwriter Will Sheff and band take the story of a rejected boy's journey, his lost weekend-plus, and expand it into an epic, in feeling if not in length.

As on all of their albums, the songs here encompass tragedy, romance, secrets, mortality, crimes, passions, and the power of music. They're stories that seem to stretch centuries, yet seem to be taking place here in this moment, with its characters breathing the same air as us. The grand scope is perhaps why comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel are tempting; the intimacy, mystery and rustic textures make Will Oldham come as quickly to mind; yet the vitality and passion keep drawing Neil Young and Crazy Horse toward the front of my brain. And indeed, in the moment that you're listening to Black Sheep Boy it's about as invigorating and moving an experience as the most classic recordings of any of those musicians. There's something about Black Sheep Boy that's even more gut-wrenching and heart-yanking than any of Okkervil River's previous albums. It's about focus, about control.

Okkervil River songs always roll along in a way that makes them feel very 'stream of consciousness', like they're just pouring out of Will Sheff's heart. Yet the lyrics seem as carefully considered as any proper poetry. Witness such beautifully articulated lines like this one: "…and there's nothing quite like the blinding light when that curtain's cast aside, and no attempt is made to explain away the things that really, really, really are behind."

"Careful" is a word that comes to mind for Black Sheep Boy, though by "careful" I mean "well-considered", not "safe". The lyrics continually circle back to the same themes and images, reinforcing the fact that an overall story is being told even though each song itself feels complete and riveting in its own right. And the music is marked by a skillful sense of timing and restraint – strings gracefully come in at the right moments, and brute power is wielded in just the right places. There's enough raw power and loud guitars on Black Sheep Boy to kill a hundred fake punk rock bands, yet they only appear a couple places, and often only for a few seconds. Two key ones are the intermittent guitar blasts throughout "For Real" and the moments in "So Come Back, I Am Waiting", a song which sort of caps off the black-sheep boy story, when the band suddenly lifts off into such an intense drive that you can't help but pump your fist in the air like a metalhead, at the same time feeling that distinct urge to sob.

Black Sheep Boy is filled with power, but also tenderness; it contains some of the band's prettiest songs ever. Okkervil River's melodies meander in a really emotional way, like they're slowly traveling around your heart until they're sure that they've dredged up your deepest-held feelings. That's truer here than ever. It's an album filled with ache, with hurt and longing that you can viscerally feel. Yet it's also music than you can shout along to and turn up really really loud.

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