Certainly that’s the reason why Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River’s third album, has remained my favourite release by the band. After starting off with a faithful cover of folk singer’s Tim Hardin’s song of the same name, the album’s ten subsequent songs explore the wanderlust, the danger, the prodigality and hidden secrets hinted at within the Hardin’s song of the golden-haired son who returns home the Black Sheep Boy, begging his family not to ask him where he’s been and what he’s done.
As the title track ends, a slow whine of noise picks up before a roughly played guitar riff kicks into ‘For Real’, where Will Sheff, adopting the character of the Black Sheep Boy, sings about thirsting for real blood. The song rises to a nearly unhinged spectacle of madness and violence, as the narrator tears aside any veil of civility to expose the pulsing, desperate, anger of someone who may’ve done some very bad things. Or, maybe, just imagines very bad things more often than he should’ve.
Blood flows throughout these stories of the Black Sheep Boy, riffing off metaphors of lambs and rams, of sacrifice and slaughter, of jaws snapping shut around throats in animal desperation and fear. Songs of wayward sons, jealous exes, doomed relationships, swinging between moments of defiance and shame.
The Black Sheep Boy is the very epitome of an unreliable narrator; he flits between sadness and anger, regret and frustration, mixing imagery of violence with stories of domesticity. It’s impossible to tell what parts of his tales are things he actually did, and which are just the fevered imaginings of someone skirting the edge of madness, unable to tidily explain away life’s bad experiences of love lost and broken hearts. By turns frustratingly obtuse then starkly transparent, and always compelling further listening.
On this album Okkervil River’s sound is at perhaps their most rustic. Acoustic guitars, slide guitar and vintage organ and simple drums make up most of the palette. But there’s also growling electronics in a few places, humming underneath some of the quieter moments with menace, and some lovely lashes of Tex-Mex style horns, sparingly but effectively used. Until, now and then, the band explodes into an up-beat, almost retro-poppy song, yet all the while Sheff’s voice screeches and shrills another desperate attempt to explain (or explain away) some horror the dissolute Black Sheep Boy did or saw while away from home.
Moments of beauty too. On ‘A Stone’, where the Black Sheep Boy sings sadly of the woman who loved an unfeeling lover for their stone-like nature, fully knowing that loving such a person can’t end well for either of them. The Black Sheep Boy idolises this woman as a princess, as horns swell over a country two-step, with his voice realises that they way each of the lovers idolises the other is flawed and doomed to failure.
And so the album goes, before culminating with the gorgeous ‘So Come Back, I Am Waiting’, as the Black Sheep Boy returns home as the ram, and pledges to another that he’s done with the road and with strife, and wants to make her his lamb. But, then, quietly, as strings soar and a vintage-sounding guitar plays, the album comes to an end with ‘A Glow,’ where the Black Sheep Man reveals that the Boy is just underneath the surface, and his family might not be safe after all. Chilling, especially in the context of a lovely little honky tonk waltz.
But it’s ‘For Real’ that I keep coming back to. Four and three-quarter minutes of exhilarating determination and catharsis, Will Sheff’s voice barely controlled as he spits out the Black Sheep Boy’s challenge to a new lover, daring them to show how far they’re prepared to go for their love. But, again, there’s that sense that this is all going on only within the narrator’s head, his inner fears and frustrations of falling in love being expressed in a dark fantasy. But, the hint is there that maybe it isn’t fantasy, maybe we the listener are right to be concerned about what the narrator is intending to do. Or may’ve done.
This isn’t an easy-listening album, and I love it for that.
Beer match: Too easy. Black Sheep Ale from north Yorkshire’s Black Sheep Brewery. It’s an excellent bitter, full and bitter-sweet, and big long warming rasp of Goldings hops all the way down. But like the Black Sheep Boy, not everything is as it seems, it’s relatively pale body concealing a fullness and complexity of raisins and caramel, flavours you’d expect from a darker beer.