Okay, story time.
For a while, Okkervil River had been one of those bands I’d heard about endlessly through online message boards. Black Sheep Boy was particularly recommended, though I believe at the time either it was their most recent album or the record succeeding it, The Stage Names, had just been released so there wasn’t much for it to compete with. Despite seemingly constant praise, I never really grew a pair and Okkervil River fell to the wayside as one of those bands I’d get around to eventually.
Cut to freshman year of college. I met a girl named Heather at a party two weeks before the end of the semester; we almost immediately hit it off and spent almost every day together for the fortnight left. During finals week we went to a Kevin Devine show together at the Webster Underground in Hartford, and as a segue into “Brooklyn Boy” he played the title track off of Black Sheep Boy. Again, at this point I’d only ever heard the name Okkervil River and had no intimate familiarity with any of their work, but Heather assured me that this record would totally flip my shit around if I just gave it the chance.
Of course, the irony of this situation is that the party I met Heather at was actually her going away party. She was spending the next semester abroad in Australia. Fortunately, she wasn’t departing until the end of February, leaving ample opportunity for a week-or-so visit with me at Quinnipiac before hightailing it several thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. She came bearing mixes, the first of which had the song “Black” on it. After seeing Kevin Devine’s cover, I got my hands on the full album but only really spent any time with the title track. I’m not really sure why this was at the time, but it wasn’t until I heard “Black,” the catchiest death wish ever, that I really got a feel for what Okkervil River was all about.
Whereas “Black Sheep Boy” and my own preconceived notions led me to believe Okkervil was just another folk band I wouldn’t pay much attention to, “Black” slapped me square across the face and yelled at me for being such a presumptuous ass. Tail ashamedly tucked between my legs, I went back to the beginning and dove headfirst into Black Sheep Boy.
Holy fucking shit. It’s a crude, but it describes the album well. From the proper opener, “For Real,” Will Sheff lets the listener know he’s not fucking around, weaving a deep, emotional narrative centered on the titular character, the Black Sheep Boy. It’s a story that’s left deliberately vague; it’s one of homecoming, of vengeance, of love, of pain, and of growth. There’s feelgood highs and spectacular lows, with such a stark contrast between the two that it’s hard to imagine it all on the same album.
I expected that story from the beginning to come full circle a lot more cleanly. I probably shouldn’t start posts at 4 AM and hope they wrap up nicely the next day.