Review Summary: A successful interpretation of an anguished character, "Black Sheep Boy" serves as one of the darkest albums I have heard to date, paralleled by subtle and underlying beauty.
Tim Hardin, a prominent 60s folk musician, once wrote a song called "Black Sheep Boy" about an 'unowned boy'. The song wasn't huge, nor was the heroin addicted artist, but it gained the support it received from the various Woodstock performances that Hardin featured in. Nearly 40 years later, Okkervil River not only covered the song but built a loose concept album around the character of the song in their 2005 release, "Black Sheep Boy".
One of the more interesting aspects of this album is the fact that it's been labelled a 'concept album'. If the general label of 'concept album' was an instant put off, don't let it be. All that applies to is the lyrics and they are written with eloquence and a darker, deeper feeling than most are unable to match. Will Sheff writes more in an abstract prose fashion, similar to something you'd see in a short story, rather than a song lyric. The way that this allows the lyrics to be written make the story easier to be conveyed and continued by Sheff, rather than having him struggle to write a story in eleven three versed songs. As far as 'concept album' goes, that's the main jist of it. The lyrics show an impressive progression and are filled to the brim with dark and often metaphorical imagery, such as "we were running from every being that was hunting, but we let them get ahead of us. We let them lie in wait for us." from "In a Radio Song". Sheff is able to create an atmosphere filled with underlying danger, hidden desires, and dark passion, detailing the events of the black sheep boy's thoughts, love, and actions. In "Black", Sheff writes about revenge on the man who abducted the unnamed 'black sheep boy's lover, when he writes, "Don't you realize that I wouldn't pause, that I would cut him down with my claws if I could have somehow never let that happen? Or I'd call, some black midnight, *** up his new life where they don't know what he did, tell his brand-new wife and his second kid.".
With lyrics like those and ambition to suit the project, the music elevates this into something greater. "For Real" and "Black" keep a sense of uneasy warmth in the record, both cheerful and volatile at moments. A husky voiced Sheff and a melody that glues itself into your head make the songs the two most rocking on the album. Though both songs deal with intense themes, they're both ultimately love songs and that's what is emphasised in the cheerful melodies. Sheffs vocals on "A Radio Song" and "A King and A Queen" are the sound of a man in pain. The raw emotion of his voice is enough to turn the songs into a sob fest and yet you are compelled to carry on listening as the slow, lamenting horns of "A King and A Queen" wail softly behind the words. "So Come Back, I Am Waiting", counting in at 8 minutes long, builds gradually from lone falsetto tones into the anguished tones of the brass steadily into the angered shouts of "So why did you bawl from the spell of some old holy song that some liar laughed as he composed - some liar I loved to control?". Strings and horns push the music, like parents to a stroller, along a gradual path of emotions until the end of the journey, an inspired vocal effort from Sheff to end the song in standards no less than epic. "Get Big" features Amy Anelle of the folk band The Places, in a melancholic duet with Sheff over a steady drum beat, before the song turns into a country-tinged love song. "A Stone" is a metaphor for the black sheep boy, making the comparison in regards of their cold, emotionless states. The song has a folk-vibe to it and gives Sheff the chance to show off his vocal abilities as well as a creating a vulnerable tone, as it tells of regret and decision. The horns are as sorrowful as ever here in between the acoustic strumming and soft snare beat. "Song of our So-Called Friend" has a lively drum beat accompanied by twinkling piano notes behind it, with a female vocalist appearing again to compliment Sheff's voice during the hook. "Latest Toughs" is a joyful, hook-infested song made memorable by it's repeated falsetto backing vocals singing, "he was hiding from the sun." before the song falls back into it's rejoiceful chorus. "A Glow", the closer, does it's duty of bringing the listener back to ground after the heights of "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" with it's progression of a tired sounding vocal performance, which fits the mood of the slow and soothing drum and strings partnership.
In a Radiohead 'Street Spirit'-esque fashion, many of the songs build into such intensity that it becomes impossible to neglect the absolutely glowing emotion. Like 'Street Spirit', instead of allowing the songs to reach some sort of huge crescendo that the listeners ache for, it leaves the listeners urging for more. Brilliantly, they manage to lead the listener into each song, building and breaking the emotional barriers, until "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" finally reaches that sort of climax that the album leaves the listener dying for.
Never before have I experienced an album that crawled under my skin to the effect that this has. It is a see-saw of emotion, it's dark but uplifting, it's ambitious to the point where they know their limits, and it is executed to the point of perfection. With the likes of strings, horns, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and an organ involved in the production, it would be difficult to know when enough is enough but this record places the instruments within reasoning, careful not to overuse them. The underlying dark storyline behind it all just adds to the overall emotional effect of the album and fills the record with pain so real that you can almost feel it. The band succeed on all accounts and create an album of which I continue to explore to this day.