okkervil river - black sheep boy

On Tuesday, Okkervil River announced that they would be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the group’s seminal release, Black Sheep Boy, by reissuing a deluxe three-LP set of the recording and playing the record in full during a seven-date tour, which includes a stop at the newly-refurbished Swedish American Hall in San Francisco on December 18. The three-disc reissue will include Black Sheep Boy and its corresponding EP, The Black Sheep Boy Appendix, as well as There Swims a Swan, a collection of covers that the band recorded around the same time as the aforementioned albums.

Loosely based on the life of singer-songwriter Tim Hardin (the title track is a cover of his original recording), a tragic figure who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 39, Black Sheep Boy received immediate critical acclaim upon its release, landing on numerous year-end best of lists, while elevating Okkervil River and its chief visionary, Will Sheff, to greater public prominence.

The album follows an unnamed narrator (the Black Sheep Boy, perhaps a guise for Hardin) and his various battles and attempts to ward off his demons and achieve close emotional connections in an unforgiving personal existence. A template of diverse indie rock leanings, the album contains haunting male-female duets (“Get Big”), stirring, call-to-arms pop numbers (“Black,”), simple acoustic ballads (the aforementioned title track), and brooding, epic-sized tracks (the seething, 8.5-minute “So Come Back, I Am Waiting.”)

Throughout it all, Sheff sings with the emotional resonance of a man deeply invested in the characters and narrative he dreamed up. With his voice, ranging from soft, fragile coos to unhinged screaming, Sheff embodies the frustrations of the tortured narrator. He brilliantly uses metaphor to weave between literal incarnations of the Black Sheep Boy and the associated feelings of that phrase (to be the unwanted family member or friend). That technique is captured best in “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” where Sheff draws the song to a close with the devastating couplet, “I am waiting, all hated and damned / I am waiting, I snort and I stamp / I am waiting, you know that I am / Calmly waiting to make you my lamb.”

The album is a beautiful, literate and emotionally-pure examination of a fractured soul, and what happens when the world discards those kinds of people.

On a personal level, Black Sheep Boy is perhaps the most important album I’ve ever heard. I moved to San Francisco in 2005, the year that the album came out, and Black Sheep Boy will forever be linked with that incredibly rewarding, life-changing decision. After being introduced to the album, I immediately bought up the band’s back catalog (the absolutely superb LPs Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See and Down the River of Golden Dreams and the equally-excellent EPs, Stars Too Small to Use and Sleep and Wake-Up Songs). I also explored and discovered the artists who inspired Sheff, like Big Star and Daniel Johnston. Through his enchanting gift for storytelling, Sheff introduced me to a realm of musicians I might have never heard — a development that makes me eternally grateful for Okkervil River.

While it might not quite ring true now, I called Okkervil River my favorite band for many years, and Black Sheep Boy my favorite album. They’ve released great albums since (2007’s The Stage Names is nearly the equal to Black Sheep Boy), but Okkervil River have never quite attained the spectral greatness of their 2005 recording.

Seeing Okkervil River live is always a cherished occasion — Sheff performs with a gusto that often leaves him shedding layers throughout the night. But it will be truly special event on December 18, watching him recreate his greatest achievement.

Okkervil River
Swedish American Hall
December 18, 8:30 p.m.
$20 – $22