Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Art of the Album: Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy

5963-black-sheep-boy Great albums aren’t made by great music alone.

At least, not for me. Had I not heard the great albums of my life – Meadowlands, The Wrens; Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams; You Forgot It In People, Broken Social Scene; Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon – when, how and where I first heard them, their greatness might be something less. Something different, at least.

Maybe this depends on whether you’re the kind of person who scores their life with music they feel really, truly speaks to them. It’s a forgivable narcissism, if only because it happens so seldom: You hear a song, and think, I was meant to hear this right here. Right now.

So it was last week, when I downloaded Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy on a lark and fell totally in love with…well, falling in love.

Because Black Sheep Boy is, if nothing else, one big love song. It’s spliced with violence, despair and self-destructive wanderlust – love turns out poorly, love leads to wreckage. Love is a broken son of a bitch, his voice ragged from screaming: “Come back to your black sheep man.”

Okkervil River is hard to pin down. Not even Pitchfork can find an adequate descriptor – unless you think alt-country, avant-folk or the dead-eyed ‘indie rock’ really describe anything. Think Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes, vocal chords ragged from a too much whiskey and too many bar sing-a-longs – now rough him up with a bareknuckle brawl behind some west Texas bar and slap on 15 no-luck years . That’s what Okkervil River sounds like: rangy, worn-out; burnished instead of brilliant.

okkervil_river-lost_coastlines They met in a New Hampshire high school. After parting ways for college, they reconvened in Austin, Texas (of course they did). It was 1998. Will Sheff wrote the songs, Zach Thomas played bass and mandolin, and Seth Warren played drums. Today, Sheff is the only original member still with Okkervil River.

Their first album, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, was published by Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr.) in 2002. Pitchfork welcomed them with a 7.2, which I think is their equivalent of an approving locker-room slap on the ass.

They got their name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya (of course they did).

It was their third album, and it was a concept album. If that didn’t scare the execs at Jagjaguwar, it should have – “concept album” is practically synonymous with “overwrought, overambitious and overextended.” The concept, in this case, was Tim Hardin’s song “Black Sheep Boy.” It reads more like a poem than a folk ditty:

Here I am back home again, and I'm here to rest
All they ask is where I've been, knowing I've been West
I'm the family's unowned boy, golden curls of envied hair
Pretty girls with faces fair
See the shine in the Black Sheep Boy
If you love me, let me live in peace, please understand
That the black sheep can wear the golden fleece
And hold a winning hand
I'm the family's unowned boy, golden curls of envied hair
Pretty girls with faces fair
See the shine in the Black Sheep Boy
Here I am back home again, and I'm here to rest

Okkervil took Hardin’s weary, prodigal wanderer into the studio as a motif. He emerged blown messily across 11 tracks. Black Sheep Boy starts off with a more or less rote cover of Hardin’s song – brisk, benign, relaxed, with soothing strings.

Then we hear the tense opening chords of “For Real.” Sheff moans into the microphone, sinister and simmering: “Some nights I thirst for real blood / for real knives/ for real cries.” The chorus explodes, but keeps some tension in reserve; the song slinks through distorted guitars until it hits the end of its patience. And when he yelps “I don’t want to hear you say it shouldn’t really be this way / ‘cause I like this way just fine,” he sounds ready to smash everything in the studio. You can hear his spit hit the microphone. The song careens towards its scorching outro with Sheff howling “You can’t hide.”

This isn’t going to be a happy album.

The dark, twisty imbalance of “For Real” is given ballast by the daydreamy “In a Radio Song.” The song floats with the lightness of a passing thought, even though it’s a fantasy involving grisly animal death and being ambushed by hunters. “We’re fucked, we’re fucked, we’re fucked,” Sheff muses. If so, “In a Radio Song” is a gentle death, lulling us to sleep with ambient street chatter towards its coda. That’s a kind of love, I think – it seems like a nice way to go.

“Black,” a bouncy revenge tune about finding the man who kidnapped and raped your love one, surprising him at dinner and ripping out his throat – or worse, telling his new wife and kid what he’d done. Keyboard notes float above a brisk drumbeat and lighter-than-air guitar. Sheffield sings with a crooked grin: after all, if “wrecking his life / the way that he wrecked yours” isn’t love, what is?

Not every track on Black Sheep Boy is so dire. “Get Big” is a post-coital love duet between a detached older man and his too-young lover. “Take your medicine,” Sheff sings, “and I won’t ask / where you’ve been. / Live your lost weekend, / because I know you wanted it / to get big, little kid.” It’s a more tempered perspective than “For Real,” and songs after – “A King and a Queen,” “A Stone” “The Latest Toughs” and “Song Of Our So-Called Friends” choose levity over intensity, spreading conflict over intelligent arrangements and light instrumentals. “A Stone” proceeds with all the ease and confidence of an afternoon walk, though it ponders the tragic gap between loving someone and loving the idea of someone.

3145965003_f940247e7e Okkervil muster everything for the narrative “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” unifying the album in a single song. The Black Sheep Boy croons through verses counterwieghted with stone-heavy guitar and an arrangement of cornets, sounding almost funereal as the song slowly leans forward, gaining momentum. They lasso in every aspect of the Black Sheep Boy – horned like a satyr, lying through a microphone, killing with charm, loaded down with self loathing. And pleading, waiting, for someone to come back. The metaphor reaches a moment of truth when Sheff unleashes himself on the climactic verse, screaming his lungs to pulp with “I’m waiting on hoof and on hand / I’m waiting, all hated and damned / I’m waiting I snort and I stamp” before dissolving into “I’m waiting, you know what I am. / Calmly waiting to make you my lamb.”

It’s as triumphant and complex an ending as anything I’ve ever heard. To land a metaphor carefully contrived over the length of an album – a metaphor extrapolated from someone else’s folk song – is as ambitious as it is risky. But even as my nerves sizzled, I remembered an earlier verse, an admonishment from the Black Sheep Boy:

So why
did you bawl
from the spell of some old holy song
some liar laughed as he composed,
some liar I loved to control?

For all its damn-the-torpedoes passion and low-fi scruff, Okkervil River is deliberate and high-minded. Sheff’s songwriting can verge on obtuse – really, who’s running to the dictionary to look up “abecedarian?” – but their arrangements smack pleasantly of people who listen to a lot of music, and prize above all a well-executed, subtle and complex rhythm. Sheff plays the character of a caterwauling romantic, but it’s just a character – the man behind the sheep mask is holding a thesaurus.

I called Black Sheep Boy a love song. The album’s murder/rape/deceit index may seem too high for love, unless you’re a sociopath; but listen. Just listen. When Sheff croons, almost slurs, “There’s plenty of ways to make you mine tonight,” you feel something tremor in his voice. You’d have to be soul-dead not to hear it. Or maybe you’re just me, gnawing over failed relationships in the dreary introspection of February, looking for a commiserate soul. Looking, as it turns out, for Black Sheep Boy.

Desert Island Tracks: “For Real,” “Black,” “Get Big,” “So Come Back, I Am Waiting”

Note: The video to “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” is set to Sin City. Do yourself a favor, minimize the window and listen to the song.