Originally released: 4/5/2005 via Jagjaguwar; Reissued: 12/4/2015
In celebration of its ten-year anniversary, Jagjaguwar reissued Okkervil River’s third studio album Black Sheep Boy. The Bloomington-based label said this of the record: “For those new to the band, this might be the best place to start, the first step on a long road, the opening to a forest you can get lost in.”
It’s an understandable claim; the label’s gotta make money off the reissue. While listeners should certainly get to Black Sheep Boy, ideally they should experience frontman Will Sheff’s lyricism chronologically. That way they can observe the evolution of his themes, how he re-contextualizes them in ever-affective ways. Escapism for example: on 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams, you have “Maine Island Lovers,” a song about the tension between basking in the pleasantness of an affair and wondering if maybe this illicit relationship should become…licit; after letting a few more records steep, you get to 2008’s The Stand Ins, whose fact-based closing song–“Bruce Wayne Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”–explores rocker Bruce Wayne Campbell’s AIDS-influenced abandonment of his real identity for Jobriath, his stage persona.
A chronological approach also allows listeners to futher appreciate how consistently euphonious Sheff’s wordsmithing is. On “Listening to Otis Redding at Home during Christmas,” the eighth track on the band’s first studio album, he croons, “There’s a tangle of greenery where winter scenery ends.” That intralinear rhyming, accompanied by alliteration, so pretty it’s impossible not to notice, reappears in much of Okkervil River’s discography. Take “Lay of the Last Survivor” off 2011’s I Am Very Far: “All the whitecaps of the waves slap / like last hand claps.”
Will Sheff’s lyrics are never less than great, and–sure, Jagjaguwar–perhaps Black Sheep Boy boasts the paragon of his lyricism. Like “Maine Island Lovers,” “A Stone” deals with infidelity, but more abstractly. You’re prone to suspect that “A Stone” is the intersection of the personal and the conceptual, that it explains why Sheff had the drive to make an album so sonically and thematically dark. Black Sheep Boy does, after all, open with a cover of Tim Hardin’s song of the same name–a song that’s superficially about hair, girls, and money veneering inner turmoil. Though if you know much about Hardin, to quote Consequence of Sound, it’s “about heroin relapse caused by a visit to [Hardin’s] family.”
Following the cover is “For Real,” which begins, “Some nights I thirst for real blood.” That sentiment is echoed in “Black,” the fourth track: “But if I could tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws / And erase his name for good, don’t you know that I would?” What’s the source of Sheff’s malevolence, you want to know–and you think you figure it out with the seventh track.
There are a number of reasons to fall for “A Stone.” The worst of which is that it may be the only song in existence with the word “knave.” More compelling is the characterization. You’re told in the first verse that the subject of the song likes “Hot breath, rough skin / Warm laughs and smiling / The loveliest words whispered and meant.” She seems cool, right? But, wait. She’s commitment-averse enough to “love a stone.” She cheated on the narrator with a guy whose relationship with her was temporary, uncomplex–so much so that the narrator calls him unalive. Yet the stone’s real enough for her unfaithfulness to make the narrator “fu*king insane.” You get the clearest idea of the guy with whom she cheated in the last verse, when his humanity, in a roundabout way, is acknowledged:
And I think that I know the bitter dismay
Of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day
When she turned him away to remember some knave
Who once gave just one rose, one day, years ago
He’s the knave, just an old acquaintance, by no means in it for the long haul. That’s at least part of what fueld Black Sheep Boy’s fury, you theorize; Sheff was cheated on. (And he supports your theory in an interview with Consequence of Sound: “I was going through this really tumultuous, on-again-off-again, messy, strange relationship at the time we entered the studio.”)
Jagjaguwar’s blog also has a three-part mini-documentary called “The Making of Black Sheep Boy.” All the footage came from a handheld camera bassist Zachary Thomas brought along for fun. The first part, “Learning the Songs,” features lots of shots of the shack in Austin where Sheff was living and where the band was rehearsing. In one scene, keyboardist Jonathon Meiburg is listening to an early version of “Black” and says, “Jesus, Will.” Sheff goes, “What?” And Meiburg laughs and yells, “This song!” The anger in it, he means–how believable the anger is. The scene cuts off just before Sheff finishes saying thanks.
The third part, “Finishing the Album,” shows the mastering that happened in Wimberley, Texas, on November 22nd, 2004. For about three of the seven and a half minutes, Sheff and producer Brian Beattie deliberate over the transition between a “A Stone” and “The Latest Toughs.” Then there’s this non-business bit wherein Zachary Thomas asks,
Did you know that Target this year is offering a free wake-up call on the morning after Thanksgiving so that you can get started shopping as soon as possible? They have a range of personalities who will call and deliver your message. There’s Ice-T. There’s Darth Vader, of all people. Um, Heidi Klum?
Thomas asks if he’s pronouncing her surname correctly, and you can hear Sheff say he doesn’t know who she is. And you hope you’re wrong. You hope that no girl cheated on Will Sheff–who’s an all-star indie folk lyricist and who in his twenties was unaware of the existence of a famous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model–for some knave.