There’s something predatory about record reviewers. We’re all just waiting for that weak, slow-moving band or artist to pounce on and tear to shreds. And when we’ve killed our prey, we want to exhibit their various organs and limbs and say, “See, that’s why I had to kill him.” With this in mind, I was looking forward to ripping apart the new Okkervil River album, The Black Sheep Boy, piece-by-piece. But it seems the Okkervil River species is a little more cunning than I gave it credit for. When the arrangements are spirited, the tempo quick and the singing impassioned, I just can’t catch up for the kill. It’s only when the tempo slows and the band’s weaknesses show – pretentious lyrics, dull arrangements, general lameness – that I can swoop in for a quick execution.
I can’t blame the band or singer-songwriter Will Scheff for the album’s first track; that’s the fault of Tim Hardin, a second-rate troubadour and first-rate heroin addict from the ’60s. Scheff uses Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” as a launch-off into a quasi-concept album, though it beats me what the concept is. Murder? Lost love? Having “golden curls of envied hair”? Who knows?
All I know is that Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” is a lame song about a blonde haired guy whose family doesn’t like him but who gets tons of action from “girls with faces fair,” and the fact that Scheff liked this song so much he wanted to write an entire album based on it does not reflect too kindly upon him.
It’s the album’s second track that proves my initial theory. Though melodramatic and a little emo-ish, “For Real” is an exciting song, with a dynamic arrangement and enough passion in Scheff’s voice to forgive lines like “Cause there’s nothing quite like a blinding light/That the curtains cast aside.” Think an alt-country Arcade Fire or one of Palace Music’s more rocking efforts. “For Real” is the sort of song Scheff should be writing more often, as opposed to the thick-as-syrup, slowcore country dirges that fill Okkervil River’s first album, Down the River of Golden Dreams.
And yet by track three, we’re back in the Land of Nod, as in nodding out because the song is so slow and ponderous. “In a Radio Song” begins with the lines “Black Sheep Boy, blue-eyed charmer/ Head hanging with horns, from your father,” sung like Scheff is laying on his apartment floor, drunk and singing quietly to no one. And therein lies the central problem: Scheff thinks he’s more profound than he really is.
The next lines are “In a cold little mirror you were grown/ By a black little wind you were blown/ Alone, alone, alone,” with Scheff moaning “alone, alone,” like being alone is some sort of a curse out of a Greek tragedy. Give me a break. By coming out of the gate already depressed and defeated, Scheff assures that the rest of the song is just going to keep harping on that same note.
And that’s the same problem with “Get Big,” “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” and “Glow.” Slow, defeated and self-important, they’re all just begging to be put out of their misery.
The other good-to-decent songs follow the “For Real” prototype. They’re energetic enough to elude my killer instinct and hummable enough to make me forget how stupid their lyrics are. But ultimately, the successful songs can’t redeem the album. For a band who’s been compared to such indie-luminaries as Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, Okkervil River are amateurs, too pleased with their poetry and ponderous arrangements to actually make a record worthy of such comparisons.