"A black sheep boy revolves
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over canyons and waterfalls
A black sheep boy dissolves
in syringe or in shower stall
Says, 'there's plenty of time to make you mine tonight'
Says, 'there's plenty of time to make you mine'
Says, 'there's plenty of ways to know you're not dying, all right
Hell, there's plenty of light still left in your eyes'"
Melancholy pondering over guitars that strum the solitude of another night as a solo artist in this highly collaborative life. A black sheep is an outsider; one who is different in a way that others disapprove of. A loser. An outcast. On their latest effort, the conceptual "Black Sheep Boy", Okkervil River not only play the plight of the black sheep boy by highlighting the outsider that he is, but also play his struggle and will to seek out true emotion, joy, and companionship. It's raw in emotion and perhaps a bit difficult (though equally affirming), especially if you have felt the world on the outside of the electric fence that encloses all of the "perfect people". Yet, in a world of Sleeping Beauties, always waiting to be kissed by a mythical character that doesn't exist in order to feel alive again, "Black Sheep Boy" is heart-wrenching reality, shaking down hope(less), emotions, and struggles, in the simple goal for everything to be OK.
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One of the more strange things about this world is how it seems like the majority of people would indicate that they have felt like outsiders for a stretch in their lives. Perhaps the majority would even consider themselves outsiders right now. This is a mandatory concept to note in discussing "Black Sheep Boy" because one could quickly get the impression that this disc is reserved for emo kids and lonely adults. In reality, just being alive is awkward and emotionally draining, making most people feel like castaways. In this, Okkervil River's "Black Sheep Boy" should be for the majority.
Unfortunately, the majority doesn't seem to appreciate beautifully nuanced music and songwriting that goes beyond conventional emo love screams. "For Real" is the type of song that these overwhelmed emo bands wish they could write, if only they were actually in touch with their emotions. It's poetic and digs to the center of the need to overcome numbness, even if it's with the pain of an adrenaline shot to the heart; it's to combat the overdose of reality that will send one into the pits of a soulless nothing state. Likewise, the music of this initiation track is set just right, as it feels like a black night with guitars picking every emotion, hoping to find the combination that will make you feel alive again. Then, as lead singer Will Sheff's vocals turn for a more dramatic take, the guitar screams with his forceful lines. The music generally runs from semi-artsy indie rock to orchestral-tinged dramatics, and perfectly melds with Sheff's delivery to create this common man's story.
Of course, "For Real" doesn't clue you in on the scope of the music on "Black Sheep Boy" if you consider that the band is listed as a sextet with seven guest musicians slated as playing the strings and horns plus one lady (Amy Annelle) on-board for harmony vocals. But they pick their spots and don't throw everything at you at once, keeping "Black Sheep Boy" an intimate experience. "In A Radio Song" is a subtle and rather disturbing trip through the black sheep boy's dreams, where strings are added to the noises of life and acoustic guitars like rays are added to the sun in a work of art, adding depth and character to the total project. "Get Big" saves a lot of the additional sounds and plays more like a last call rocker with the devastating emotions only evident in the songwriting ("So drink your cup down to the dregs, and leave that club on shaking legs, with another guy, but remember: I'm not him"). Yet, adding Annelle in what is essentially a duet on infidelity is a most appropriate move that manages to, again, add depth and nuance to this personal and emotive project.
The facets and construction of the music are, still, just lending themselves to the abstract topic-to-topic look at the present existence of the black sheep boy. You could write a whole essay on the music itself, but it would only tell a part of the story of "Black Sheep Boy" and leave out the most crucial element, which is the storytelling itself. The tale of the molested and spiritually torn Cynda Moore on "Black" are gut-wrenching, as the perspective of our protagonist is one clouded with images of seeing one of the few people that he cares for (and actually cares for him) wither away. His caring almost consumes him; a hint of selfishness in losing one of his few acquaintances in his outsider life haunts him. Also, the attention paid to details in this storytelling is crucial, and exhibited in full in "A Stone", where Sheff details all of the things his love interest enjoys ("hot breath, rough skin, warm laughs"), while telling why she has fallen for a "stone" of the opposite nature ("because it's smooth and it's cold"). With this, gender issues come into play, further enhancing this boy's feeling of isolation.
Yet, the music he's creating seems to keep our black sheep boy company. It's his vessel to get all of his feelings out, and in this we are led to believe that Will Sheff and the black sheep boy are one and the same, and us, too. "The Latest Toughs" is struggle and positivity; forgetting troubles by screaming them, with vocal harmonies from dead friends rejoicing in the act of "hiding from the sun." The depths of the atmosphere provoke contemplation, however, the guitars that drive this one don't lend themselves to sulking, but to a celebrations of hardships passed. Thankfully the closer, "A Glow", also brings us out the other end with similar sentiments, including highs that ascend to the heavens and lows that drive us into a better reality at ground zero. The somber sparkle of the guitars and the hint of brightness in the vocal harmonies make you believe that some sun rays peak into the black sheep boy's future. Every project soaked in melancholia should end with such a glittering eye toward tomorrow.
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Before "A Glow" takes the listener out, though, "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" plays the black sheep boy's theme song (see: quotes in the opener). Its eight minutes are the flaws we dig out of ourselves through masochistic sessions of dwelling, drinking, staring at TV screens with plastic people, or whatever we may do when we're wondering what the hell is so wrong with us that the world may treat us this way. It also doubles as a plea for companionship from the unwilling, further sewing its self-hurting nature. In this, "So Come back, I Am Waiting" represents the self-defeater in all of us; not willing to end one's life, but willing enough to menace it in a cycle that's inconsistent in timing but consistent enough in its pain.
It's a cycle of the living and conscientious, and it's vital to feel the highest of highs.
With no tragedy, there's no victory. Without pain, there is no joy. And within each of us, if there is no "black sheep boy", there is no "champion of the world". In this, Will Sheff may be singing our black hole hardships from the depths of Okkervil River, but that's only so tomorrow we may join him on a climb toward the summit of...well, that might as well be up to you.
"There's plenty of light still left in your eyes"
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"Black Sheep Boy"
47 mins. & 18 secs.
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Written by Cryptic Cradle for Spike-A-Delic Productions
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