Monday, December 28, 2015

First Impressions: Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River

What's the best Okkervil River album? It's a question that I find difficult to answer, and as it stands, I've only heard four-sevenths of their discography; The Stage Names is probably the most cohesive start-to-finish experience, although the The Silver Gymnasium yearning nostalgia-pop is every bit as invigorating a listen. And then there's Down the River of Golden Dreams, which while not as outwardly concept-y as its successors does feature three of the best OR tracks I've yet come across (It Ends With a Fall, The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, and The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion).

Of course, if you've heard the album that separated Down the River... from The Stage Names, the question is a far easier one. More or less everyone on the internet seems to agree that Black Sheep Boy is Okkervil River's magnum opus, from the good folk at Stereogum to my own Twitter followers:

I've never listened to Black Sheep Boy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. I know that it's supposed to be one of Will Sheff's darker outings (no mean feat considering that its immediate predecessor was the album that introduced us to these lyrics), and I know that it's some kind of concept album, but that's about as far as my knowledge goes: I haven't heard any of the 11 tracks that make up the record, and as I type this sentence, I've no idea whether or not its generally accepted status as Okkervil River's Best Album is justified.

Fortunately, Vicky bought me a copy of Black Sheep Boy for Christmas, and so I'm now in the (presumably enviable) position of being about to hear "one of the greatest albums of all time" for the first time in my life. Will it prove superior to the albums released either side of it? Is there a song among those 11 to rival the likes of The War Criminal Rises and Speaks and Down Down the Deep River? Well, I'll be blogging along as I listen, so prepare to find out...

1. Black Sheep Boy
This opening cut has a more folky sound than I'm used to hearing from OR. However, since Down the River of Golden Dreams also opens with a <2min introductory title track, I'm taking this as a very good omen indeed.

2. For Real
Hella dynamics in this one! It kinda reminds me of Valley from 2011's I Am Very Far, with added jump-scare smashes. I'm not sure what happened between September 2003 and April 2005, but this album's production values are already far superior to those heard on Down the River of Golden Dreams; I guess that album did so well that Jagjaguwar were willing to give Will Sheff whatever facilities he needed for this one?

3. In a Radio Song
This one's nice; the melody and the overall sound are wonderfully warm, although I can't decide whether the ambient background noise adds to that warmth or just makes the whole piece sound sort of cluttered. The strings are lovely, at any rate; it all makes me think of Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles) by the Arcade Fire, so that's definitely positive.

4. Black
Ooh, this one's a bit more upbeat. I don't think 'krautrock' is a tag that I would previously have kimbled to Okkervil River, but Black has a wonderful motorik thing going on that suggests they could pull off a whole album like this without much trouble. I love the line about "wreck[ing] his life the way that he wrecked yours", delivered with real gusto by Will Sheff.

5. Get Big
I wasn't much interested in this song until roughly half a minute in, when it revealed itself to be a boy/girl duet. Needless to say, as soon as the second vocal arrived on the scene, I was smitten; it's not a spectacularly engaging composite, truth be told, but I'm a sucker for a duet and there's a big gear change around the two-minute mark that keeps things interesting until the end.

6. A King and a Queen
There are some brilliant, almost Mariachi brass parts in this track, but otherwise it's nothing it? I haven't yet heard anything I don't *like*, but I also haven't heard anything that's even close to the best moments from the other OR albums in my library. Is Black Sheep Boy just a grower, or is the best still to come?

7. A Stone
All of these mid-album songs kind of sound like Seas Too Far to Reach, the sturdy but unremarkable finale from Down the River of Golden Dreams. A Stone, A King and a Queen, Get Big...any of them could be subbed into that slot after Yellow without affecting much. Each one is lazily rousing, perfectly lovely, and probably wonderful when you have a proper look at the lyrics, but so far, Black Sheep Boy appears to be bereft of the drama, the theatre, the rise and fall that drew me to Down the River... and The Stage Names. Again, this song boasts some beautiful brass, but again, I'm failing to see what makes this album so much more damn special than its neighbours.

8. The Latest Toughs
This one has more oomph, but stomping rock music isn't what I'm generally hoping for when I press 'Play' on an Okkervil River album. I'm dangerously close to starting a game of Tetris.

9. Song of Our So-Called Fried
Another song that could have competently stood in for Seas Too Far to Reach. This album is sorely lacking the variety of the other Okkervil River records I've heard - each track is just mid-pace acoustic guitar, a bit of keyboard, and a pretty brass part. Where are the irresistible, throat-straining choruses? Where's the ebb and flow, the needle-sharp quiet bits set against crashing, cacophonous crescendos? Where are the tunes?

10. So Come Back, I Am Waiting
This is better, much better. So Come Back, I Am Waiting starts low and builds up, up to something powerful and potent. Lasting just over eight minutes, it's easily the longest Okkervil River song I've encountered, but it's easily more gripping than any of the four or five songs that precede it. It's majestic, it knows how to use dynamics properly, and it feels like it belongs on a far more epic, well-paced album than Black Sheep Boy. In fact, I may put this in a playlist with Down the River of Golden Dreams and see how that sounds - it deserves company like For the Enemy and The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, not A King and a Queen.

11. A Glow
...yeah, I guess it's good? It doesn't sound like a closing track, though; it sort of leaves the album hanging instead of rounding everything off with a big finale. Give me The Rise or John Allyn Smith Sails any day of the week.

* * *

Now, I have written these 'First Impressions' blogs before, and if Black Sheep Boy grows on me - if the boring parts flesh out and fun up on repeated listens - well, it wouldn't be the first time (I still feel bad for the things I said about Tallahassee during my first spin).

But, to Stereogum and to @moorcraftjohn and to anyone else who insists that Black Sheep Boy is better than The Stage Names and Down the River of Golden Dreams and all the other Okkervil River albums, I would say this: are you sure? Because, even making allowances for the fact that all the best albums are growers, I'm really struggling to see what you mean right now. After one full play-through, Black Sheep Boy sounds to me like a collection of lovely sounds that, with two or three notable exceptions, largely fail to ever coalesce into stunning songs. Sorry, but - for the time being, at least - I'm not convinced.

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