A pretty special collection here. A 3CD or 3LP release to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River. In the set comes Black Sheep Boy, Black Sheep Boy Appendix and a previously unreleased album made six months before Black Sheep Boy came out; There Swims a Swan. It’s a great homage to a band creating dark folk tunes with often thought-provoking lyrics.
3CD or 3LP set with plenty of liner notes to give ya all the details.
9/10 Robin Staff review, 03 December 2015
Before ‘Black Sheep Boy’, Will Sheff was basic as fuck. I loved him for it, but he wasn’t ready: caught between his twin passions of writing about ex-girlfriends and getting existential about the nature of evil, his records were simplified, impassioned and loud. It was only on this, the third and supposedly best of Okkervil River records, that things started getting complicated: on this record, Sheff mutated a bit.
Let’s run with that: ‘Black Sheep Boy’ is a record about mutation. Loosely inspired by and based on the life of singer-songwriter Tim Hardin -- one of the all-time underrated folk musicians -- it focuses on a person whose music was reclusive and quiet, but also ugly and wanting. Hardin’s music asked impossible questions of lovers and romanticised emotional hurt -- “Why can’t you see you’ve got to change to love me?”, for instance -- and Sheff recognised that weary sadness in his music. In turn, ‘Black Sheep Boy’ is constantly flicking a switch between serene, pastoral folk songs (beginning, as it does, on a cover of Hardin’s eponymous tune) and earth-scorched rock music. It’s a record confused by its own bombast -- singing about love in the first-person, Sheff seems to be both character acting and going confessional, as if he’s metamorphosing with his subject matter. Basically, this is the most Kafkaesque indie folk ever got.
Like Hardin’s music, these songs are beautiful and turgid: “Song For Our-So-Called Friend” is one of Sheff’s most lyrically devastating moments, and he rushes through it with the kind of gnarled but lucid flow only he can pull off. Straight after it, though, comes “So Come Back, I Am Waiting”, Okkervil River’s equivalent of doom metal in the form of a lethargic, moaning song that about spiteful, unrequited love. Even the love songs are tainted with this bitterness: “A Stone” takes the idea of a fairytale romance and condemns it to the bland objects that make it up, taking images like a castle and turning them into nothing more than the worn-out rocks that make it up -- while guitars twang and pianos twinkle, trapped between sincerity and sarcasm.
At this point, Okkervil River weren’t the musically learned band they are now, nor the studio polished product. But they did go the hardest they ever will: on the record’s fan-adored appendix, Sheff spits out some of the band’s most ambitious cuts, including the pantomimic punk epic “Last Love Song For Now”, as well as “Another Radio Song”, a tune in which he trundles furiously through blood-red imagery as all breath leaves his body.
Sheff may have loved to write about some pretty big indie rock cliches back in the day -- why did you leave me, and so on -- but this reissue is a reminder of his first love: the lexicon of contemporary music. The third disc delves deeper than Hardin, covering songs by the humbly brilliant Washington Phillips, the classic folk singer Lead Belly and didactic country harmonisers the Louvin Brothers. Sometimes, when I listen to Will Sheff’s songs, from ‘Black Sheep Boy’ through to ‘The Stand-Ins’, I think he’d make a better rockumentary talking head than a rock star. But I’m pretty happy this record exists.
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- Black Sheep Boy (10th Anniversary Edition) by Okkervil River
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