Now, I've been told by my friends that I tend to talk about the music I love in big hyperbolic terms. This is an outrageous lie.
But by Jove, I think I've found it. The Best Album of 2005.
Yeah, we're only at the All-Star break, so to speak, but do yourself a favor and have a listen to Okkervil River's “Black Sheep Boy.” Have a seat; you might not want to leave once you start.
It’s got all the goods: rich orchestral pop? Check. Lovely, soul-baring lyrics? Check. Countrified power-folk leanings? Check. A flickering 500-watt voice that will break you in two? Check.
The wondrous “Black Sheep Boy” is lead singer Will Sheff's homage to ’60s folk hero Tim Hardin’s yearning tune of the same name. Only Sheff goes a step further (about 10 steps further, actually) in exploring that song’s themes of alienation, wanderlust and longing. Not the stuff of big goofy grins, but Sheff’s robust voice drives these songs with a tangible gravitas.
After a leading off with a brief and faithful cover of Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy,” the titular livestock then becomes Sheff's empty allegorical shell which he fills to the cracks with his cinematic violet-tinted images.
Ten bucks says The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy is relieved to finally drape the mantle of “The Next Neutral Milk Hotel” over Will Sheff’s deserving shoulders. Sheff somehow knits together a more compelling and accessible universe than either Meloy is able to create with his literate songcraft or NMH’s Jeff Mangum can make with his surrealist poetry.
What sets Sheff and Okkervil River apart, and the real power of “Black Sheep Boy,” is their underlying anger, both whispered and shouted with bare-toothed aplomb. “I rose from a dream / I had just destroyed everything in one crushing blow,” Sheff sings on the sleepy “In A Radio Song. “And I woke up and watched it go, and I woke up and wagged my tongue. / So long.”
Oh, and then there’s the blood. Lots of blood. Sheff likes to bathe his misery in dull crimson streaks. Take “For Real,” the record’s most bombastic, rocking track, where Sheff laments: “Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries. / And then the flash of steel from real guns in real life really fills my mind. / Then I really miss what really did exist when I held your throat so tight.”
Even the bouncier numbers cut with an edge, sharpened like a rusty spear-tip by Sheff’s perfectly cracked voice that comes unhinged at all the right moments. “Black” recounts a memory of a friend’s abuse as a child (real or imagined?) and sets loose his vengeful caterwaul. “Don’t you realize that I wouldn’t pause / That I would cut him down with my claws if I could have somehow never let that happen?”
And taking a page from the Shins’ “Pressed In A Book,” smart hooks and sweet call-and-response vocals abound on “All The Latest Toughs,” an angst-ridden cautionary tale warding off life’s little invasions: “If you’re dying to be led they’ll lead you up the hill in chains to their popular refrains until your slaughter’s been arranged, my little lamb, and it’s too late to talk the knife out of their hands.”
The majestic “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” is the album’s pitch-perfect crescendo, one that culminates in dirgy power chords and pained words amidst seas of strings and cymbal crashes. It’s the irresistible sound of a book closing on a fascinating and eloquent story of finding oneself after being lost for so, so long.
There’s so much about “Black Sheep Boy’ that keeps me coming back. It’s the one I’ve been waiting for. I really mean it this time. For real.
For more information on Okkervil River, visit: http://www.okkervilriver.com/.