Okkervil River’s absurdly underexposed and endlessly intriguing 2005 release, Black Sheep Boy, has been eating at me for awhile now. Beyond the surface concept of a boy that is literally a black sheep, I’ve come to the conclusion that the album is a math problem that I don’t know how to start. Despite repeated and in-depth listens, I could try all day and not come any closer to solving it. That doesn’t keep it from being a perfect concept album, however: The idea is complex and detailed, and it sounds great as an album.
Lead singer Will Sheff calls the bluff of emo, which pretends to be ashamed of exposing trivial mental anguish by copping coy. Not that you’d ever confuse Okkervil River as an emo outfit; they’re like Pedro the Lion in that, despite the all-encompassing band name, it’s primarily the brainchild of one singer-songwriter, and they’re like the Decemberists in their ability to distinguish between Dickens’s major and minor works. And unlike most media that exists outside of math books, they’ve provided an appendix to Black Sheep Boy to help us out a bit.
Appendix covers a lot of the same thematic and sonic ground as its predecessor. A string section was a new addition to Black Sheep Boy for the band, and opener “Missing Children” features harp, violin and cello. It’s obvious that something is still weighing heavily on Sheff, because children are still getting lost in creepy forests while the black sheep-boy (who comes from the Tim Hardin song of the same name, which was covered as the title track on Black Sheep Boy) darts in and out, hovering above the entire project.
Things pick up when Sheff is pinned against a wall. “No Key, No Plan” is the catchiest shout-along on either album – and the most cathartic: “When they’re closing in, maybe only then, I’ll try to get right with myself You float up on high and it isn’t a sin and there isn’t a hell where we’ll be sent/ There’s only now.” Amy Annelle’s smooth vocals helped out on Black Sheep Boy, and here she goes up against the pedal steel of “Black Sheep Boy #4.” “Another Radio Song” is the antithesis of Black Sheep Boy‘s gentle “In a Radio Song.” Sheff closes it out in an eruption of poetic consciousness with an urgency and seriousness that would make Bono blush. Besides two atmospheric throwaways that were probably intended to be heard against the full concept, you have five tracks here that stand up to anything on Black Sheep Boy.
Assuming they were written by the time of the album’s release, it’s tough to say why these tracks didn’t make the cut. They certainly don’t lack in quality. But for all the intensity and nuance Sheff delivered on Black Sheep Boy, it’s possible that these tracks were seen as either redundant (“Missing Children” and “Black Sheep Boy #4” accomplish the same thing as Black Sheep Boy’s “Black Sheep Boy” and “Get Big,” respectively), too redemptive (“No Key, No Plan”) or thematically confusing (“Another Radio Song” raises more questions than it answers). Whatever, I could conjecture all day. The bottom line is that Appendix will enhance the black-sheep experience and probably give you something to think about.
Okkervil River songs