Since forming in 1998 in Austin, Texas, Okkervil River have assembled a strong catalogue of work consisting of seven studios and a collaborative effort with psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, as well earning great reputation as a great live band. However, it very nearly ended in 2005 with their third LP Black Sheep Boy, an album which could have been their last. Main songwriter Will Sheff described himself as feeling like he’d “hit a wall,” seeing Black Sheep Boy as one final effort to make a breakthrough with fans and critics, before potentially quitting music altogether.
The music press largely passed over the album at first, with a positive review in the New York Times seeing interest begin to steadily grow. The tide really started to turn though when it was included on Pitchfork‘s list of 2005’s most overlooked albums. The final throw of the dice eventually paid off, producing not only their breakthrough LP but also their career best so far. It’s for this reason that Okkervil River have reissued Black Sheep Boy as an 10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition with two extra discs, ten years after its initial release.
Named after a song by 60’s folk-singer Tim Hardin, a cover of which opens the album, Black Sheep Boy was inspired by dark times, with Hardin’s heroin addiction, the rough period Sheff was going through at the time, and the political atmosphere in the U.S. after George W. Bush’s re-election its main driving forces. But it’s Sheff’s ability as a songwriter and a vocalist, which had reached new a level of maturity, that made what could have been an emotional wreck of an album into a career defining moment.
Sheff’s honest and articulate storytelling may have led the way, but the dynamics of the new line-up and its intelligent use of a host of instruments, including strings, a Wurlitzer organ and a bar-room piano, also make the album worth revisiting. The way everything arranged saw them take a big step forward musically, with producer Brian Beattie balancing out Sheff’s strong emotions with plenty of warmth. Its mix of more up-tempo songs like stand-out “For Real” and “The Latest Toughs”, alongside its more down-tempo numbers like “In A Radio Song” and “A Stone”, show Okkervil River at the peak of their powers.
The two extra discs come in the form of Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP, consisting of re-workings of unfinished songs written during the period, and There Swims a Swan, which features recordings made six months prior to its release. Jagjaguwar have also unearthed footage of the making of the album and made a mini-documentary available for free on Youtube. While all of these extras are a nice perk, none of it is essential. Unless you’re a fan with a deeper interest in the making of Black Sheep Boy, all that you really need is the album itself which still sounds even better today than it did ten years ago.
Essential Tracks: For Real; In A Radio Song; The Latest Toughs
Length: 47: 27
Released: 05 April 2005/04 December 2015
Producer: Brian Beattie
Genres: Indie Rock; Folk Rock; Alt-Country