By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Hundreds of artists have created odes to the black sheep. The hip hop duo Black Sheep pictured their namesake as "a brother who's not quite right/ Stays out all damn night/ Wakes up in the morning cursing, ready to fight." Chris Farley played his Black Sheep as a burdensome buffoon. But no one has depicted the evergreen anti-hero quite like Okkervil River's Will Sheff, who alternates between sketching him literally (as an untamed beast wandering the wilderness) and voicing the profound alienation that can make any jilted lover feel like a horned freak.
Sheff has been searching for a subject around which to build an album. He constructed Okkervil River's earlier releases with unifying themes in mind: 2001's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, with its country-spurred murder ballads, was the band's "earth" record; 2003's Down the River of Golden Dreams, with its seaside infidelities and nautical metaphors, was the "water" record. But he had never followed a dynamic lead through an entire song cycle. It's not that he lacked compelling options -- Don't Fall in Love's lonely ballerina estranged from her daughter, Down the River's repentant war criminal who wishes he could "restore their lives then give back my own." Sheff's problem was that when he attempted to string songs together using a central character, he saw his lyrics disintegrate into metameaninglessness.
Based around a suddenly successful actor and his abandoned ex-wife, "Song About a Star" ranks among Down the River's strongest tracks. Its smartly constructed chorus erases the spurious connection between audiences and on-screen celebrities as it emphasizes the ephemeral nature of fame: "Think you see him? He's not there, that's just light that's not yet dead/ Wait two hours and watch what'll be there instead." However, Sheff scrapped a planned trilogy after recoiling from a too-clever song about a movie set in which items from the other tunes appeared on the prop table.
"It was all very collegiate," the songwriter says in a phone interview from his home in Austin. "I have this temptation to see how pretentious I can get, and I fear one day I will incur great wrath for it."
So far, Sheff has kept his ostentatiously obtuse tendencies away from his albums. While he ranks among modern music's most literary songwriters, he stops short of turning lyrics into inaccessible, unfeeling academic exercises. He learned to draw the line during a pivotal pre-Okkervil stint at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he studied in a writer's program.
"I really hated the institutional approach," Sheff says. "I would write a story from a woman's perspective, and everyone would say, 'You don't have the authority to do that.' Workshopping is just as lame as test screening for Hollywood blockbusters. Instead of creating a lowest-common-denominator piece of shit, it creates a highbrow tool for polished uniformity that's politically in line with what everyone is thinking at that particular second. Institutions ruin things."
Putting aside poetry and fiction writing, Sheff formed a gothic rustic-rock trio, named it after a Tatyana Tolstoya short story (which borrowed its title from a Russian river), and developed a distinct lyrical voice. His thick tapestries interweave hope and helplessness, love and loss, bitterness and epiphany. On paper, some songs read like turbulent tear-jerkers, but jarringly jubilant backdrops and Sheff's achingly conflicted vocals give them an emotional intensity that transcends sad or happy.
"It might sound pompous, but we want to make ecstatic music," Sheff says. "We're trying to write songs with contradictory feelings. So much thoughtful music gets called sad, which says a lot about what pop music means to people."
Sheff's style fits perfectly with the star-crossed subject of 1960s folk singer Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy," a song Sheff decided would catalyze his first concept album. Hardin's golden-curled loner, his "family's unowned boy," tells the ladies who flock to him, "If you love me, let me live in peace." Sheff opens the record with an acoustic one-minute rendition of that tune, then segues into a surreal sequel that introduces his version of the character: a woeful fellow who pursues uncaring objects of affection instead of shooing away willing women.
"Black sheep boy, blue-eyed charmer, head hanging with horns from your father": This is the half-human hybrid, horns curling above his ears like petrified tentacles, who appears on the album's cover. Sheff shifts between animalistic imagery and authentic anguish. Leaving a trail of "muddy hoofprints," the black sheep boy can be violent and vindictive, "killing softly and serial" and vowing to "tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws." However, context suggests he's provoked by passion, chivalrously attempting to defend the honor of a former lover who's perfectly willing to suffer her indignity in silence. "You should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours," he demands, his voice cracking with righteous rage.
The mysterious boor who draws such ire might be the stoic center of "A Stone," in which Sheff sings, "You love hard gray, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape," stretching the central metaphor with delicate grace. The "stone," which reappears in a later song, is just another barrier that keeps the black sheep boy from fulfilling his unrequited longings.