Musicologist Christopher Small, in his book Musicking, argued that we use music as a reflection. Music presents back to us how we think that relationships should work, or what kinds of relationships would be “ideal.” This sort of reflection, he said, could be seen both in the music itself and the relationship of those creating the music to those listening. While Small kept his arguments to the classical world of concert halls and symphonies, there is no reason one couldn’t see the same in pop music. In such an overwhelmingly complex society as our own, any true reflection, ideal or not, is going to be pretty artistically dense, and certainly not transparent on first, second, or third listen. It is nothing less than astounding, then, that Okkervil River, a relatively unknown band from Austin, Texas, has managed to combine music and a personal mythology in one of the most powerful artistic statements of this decade so far: Black Sheep Boy. I make such a grand statement because Will Sheff, their chief songwriter, has created an aural world of intense beauty, in the same way that Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel did seven years before, or David Bowie did with Ziggy Stardust. This week, Okkervil releases Black Sheep Boy: The Definitve Edition, which includes the original album, the Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP, and several other songs and videos.
Sheff took a deceptively simple little tune by Tim Hardin called “Black Sheep Boy,” and used it as both an inspiration and an mythological framework for this song cycle. The simple character of Hardin’s song, “the family’s unowned boy” with “golden curls of envied hair,” becomes for Sheff an epic monster, as much a mental demon as a reality, as seen by how few lyrics suggest the appearance of the Black Sheep Boy directly past a “face full of flames” and “horns that sprung right from those temples.”
It is an album that acknowledges its own mysterious grandeur. The artwork is unified with the music to create an almost cinematic portrait of this character, this Black Sheep Boy: grotesque, horrid, but somehow pitiful and yearning — a dichotomy explained by the double meaning of “head hanging with horns.” Sheff oscillates between speaking as the Black Sheep Boy himself, eloquently pondering in the third person, and addressing the character directly, even harshly.
In another perfect synthesis of the comfortable and the adventurous, Black Sheep Boy mixes the hallmarks of authentic alt-country (acoustic guitars, homey and warm electric pianos, slide guitars, and harmonica) with swelling cinematic strings and immediately memorable trumpet melodies. This instrumental synthesis is not incidental. What could be more perfect for lyrics about yearning for comfort but living as a wretch than musical symbols of simple comfort disrupted by symphonic drama and the torrents of noise so well utilized in the musical interludes of the Appendix. All of this serves as a bed of nails for Sheff’s unsettling crooning, which drips with emotional intensity as he anxiously connects every word to the next.
Although music may articulate “ideal” sets of relationships, Sheff perhaps admitts that our world is so complex that what is ideal is no longer recognizable — we are left with something dramatic, violent, and hard to stomach. In Sheff’s words “you love a stone because it’s dark and it’s cold.” The unappealing is attractive, and the ugly is beautiful. It would be impossible to unpack all of the possible and integral stories, emotions, subplots, and metaphors on this album in a single review, but one wouldn’t need to either. Black Sheep Boy hangs together simply as a song cycle of musically upbeat, but lyrically tragic rockers like “Black” and “For Real,” and soft lush folk numbers like “In a Radio Song” and “A Stone.” It still, however, operates on this deep and emotionally complex level and would stand up to the most incisive analysis alongside any great novel or poem.
In the end, the mythology of Black Sheep Boy erupts out of a timeline greater than itself. Springing forth from the musical material of the past, it fades back into the world with the aptly titled “Last Love Song For Now,” suggesting that every song has really been about love, in that word’s most intricate meanings. Sheff finalizes the epic preaching, that “the river’s flowing is arrested and resumed after they blessed it” (referencing themselves, the band?) and an aching wail that “it’s over” interrupting a group chant of “…over and over and over again.” The mythology of Black Sheep Boy has its place in a much larger world of reflection, and finally ends with a hardly satisfying single note, letting you know that you will never escape from some sort of mythology, or “the thing that is making its home in your radio.”