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Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy

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Artist: Okkervil River

Album: Black Sheep Boy

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Jun. 26, 2005

Both the short story and the song excel at revealing nothing concrete while suggesting everything hidden. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” a classic of the former medium, hits with sledgehammer emotion, but the reader never learns what really happens between the conversing couple. Songs, too, exploit the clandestine and the oblique for maximum atmosphere.

Over three previous full-lengths, Okkervil River have honed their ability to create such atmospheres. Black Sheep Boy puts Will Sheff’s song-stories front and center, as the group cracks open and investigates the Tim Hardin song of the same name. The sextet covers it as the fragile album-opener, then extends its familiar trope over 10 compact stories-as-songs, sketching out the dark corners of this reject’s life.

“Black” has a visceral hook, pulsing beat and enough ambiguousness to stimulate the brain and body. Here, the narrator’s problem is not his own past, but that of a woman he’s trying to know. Just what her father has done to her we can only imagine. Guesses run the gamut from the domestic to perverse. The unsaid always hits harder than words.

The role of storyteller fits Sheff better than that of the songwriter. The arrangements are thick with Wurlitzer and fuzz guitar, lightened by touches of acoustic guitar, mandolin, pump organ and the occasional string part and ambient field recording. Instrumental passages are few, and the lyrics, as well as Sheff’s voice in the mix, take up most of the room, leading one to think Okkervil River fit the songs to match the stories.

Sometimes this approach creates an eloquent tension between the words and music. An undercurrent of doom runs beneath the lullaby lilt of “In a Radio Song.” On others, like the penultimate “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” the group takes a more predictable route, building a loud climax complete with trumpet while Sheff rages through the story of the sheep’s transformation into a ram.

Will Sheff’s lyrics garner acclaim for being “literary,” but simply writing one’s lyrics in prose form, as Sheff does, doesn’t quite make his songs worthy of Cliff Notes. What Sheff can do, and do very well, is nurture his images into believable symbols of greater girth, like when the grey, inert qualities of a rock become fodder for a jilted lover’s diatribe (“A Stone”) or the word real is ironically twisted into multiple, shifting meanings (“For Real”).

Sheff’s delivery, however, is the Black Sheep Boy’s biggest flaw. He sings earnestly, adding feeling in all the places one expects, and in the same sort of way that has dominated college radio for the past 15 years. When the song is delicate, his voice breaks; when’s he angry, he spits and screams. For someone who has put such obvious care into his writing, he shows remarkably little confidence in the listener’s ability to hear his story.

By Matthew Wuethrich

Other Reviews of Okkervil River

Sleep and Wake-Up Songs

The Stage Names

I Am Very Far

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View all articles by Matthew Wuethrich

Find out more about Jagjaguwar

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