The harsh lyrical imagery and crashing, chaotic rock ‘n’ roll of Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy was a revelation in 2005. Paired with the brilliant and unsettling artwork of William Schaff, the meditative album stretched the archetypical outsider into an antihero with many faces and placed Okkervil River among the most promising bands in indie rock.
The record received its own appendix seven months later with songwriter Will Sheff continuing to mine inspired songs from the short Tim Hardin cover song that kicked off the project. Including the cover itself, the shadow of “Black Sheep Boy” stretched across 19 songs, hovering like a phantom as Okkervil River produced its masterwork.
Now, 10 years later, Okkervil River reveals more about the Black Sheep Boy backstory—the tenuous and turbulent months before starting the album—with a deluxe anniversary edition. Highlighting the new reissue is There Swims a Swan, an 11-song album of previously unreleased covers that shows the trail of discovery through American folk history that Okkervil River undertook to arrive at Black Sheep Boy.
The covers on There Swims a Swan are stormy, primal songs, all of which to varying degrees touching on the themes Sheff and company would go on to explore during the Black Sheep Boy sessions. They’re full of troubled minds and sick souls, murder ballads and cautionary, fateful tales, played purposefully in the ramshackle style of a band finding the roadmap as they go. These are home recordings, far more than mere demos. They’re captured with a focus not on fidelity, but on how the band could inhabit these ghosts of songs dug out of America’s sepia-toned past.
Leading off is Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” played at a molasses-drip tempo that lets Sheff punctuate every tortured word of the story. Sequenced next is “I’m in Love with Susan Smith” and out of the covers, it’s the one that Sheff steps most fully into, zeroing in on the song’s honest yearning. It’s also the newest composition of the batch, released in 1997 by Nashville songwriter Tom House, and the one that creates the most direct line to Black Sheep Boy.
After their own “Westfall,” traditional murder ballads seem particularly comfortable in the hands of Okkervil River and the band turns in terrific performances of “Knoxville Girl” and “Oh, The Wind and Rain.” The other standout on There Swims a Swan is the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real,” with Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg performing as a duo on acoustic and electric guitar and tightly wound vocal harmony.
In the set’s new, extensive liner notes, Sheff describes the two exploratory recording sessions in January 2004 that produced There Swims a Swan. The first included original bassist Zachary Thomas, bassist and multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper (who would take his place), drummer Travis Nelson and Thor Harris, the friend and drummer who offered up his house for the day. Six days later, Sheff and Meiburg, who’d before long leave Okkervil to focus on his own band Shearwater, got together for another batch of songs.
The band would set up those old folk songs like tin cans on a rickety wooden fence post and then shoot ‘em down, all the while, as Sheff writes, “trying to decipher what it was they were saying to me.”
Different than the Golden Opportunities series of cover-song mixtapes Okkervil River has recorded over the years, There Swims a Swan has the sound of a band out to fulfill a particular mission. There’s a certain feeling in these songs, something that Sheff and his bandmates forged an obvious and visceral connection to. They’re songs of drinking, carousing and violence, songs that came from the frayed ends and manic impulses of their original writers. The “black sheep” undercurrent is there, perhaps more fleeting than in the songs Sheff would come to write, but it’s remarkable that time after time, Sheff lands on some type of outsider character.
The sessions had calming and inspirational effects on the band, in retrospect forming the bridge between the band’s earlier, humbler albums Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See and Down the River of Golden Dreams and the conceptual ambition of Black Sheep Boy and the records that would follow.
Sheff drilled deep into old folk music, discovering a kinship in the mostly Depression-era songs that matched both his shaky spirit and his shakier finances. Dealing with songs of a singular type, he moved forward into sketching out the songs that became Black Sheep Boy. He lifted the “black sheep” character from the Hardin cover, but went on to render the character in myriad ways, pivoting around the identity of the outsider, exploring the archetype from different angles.
“For Real” and “Black” played the theme as loud and wild, with impulses of violence and revenge fantasy. “A King And A Queen” and “A Stone” played the theme with sweetness and romance. The songs build together, each taking little detours into its own little world of abandonment and the identity questioning of a born outsider.
Sheff’s lyrics had a completeness and imaginative sweep that made Black Sheep Boy one of the most intricately meditative records of its era. He spun the notion of the black sheep over and over and over again, digging songs out of every crack he could find in the human spirit. There’s hopelessness, anger, abandonment, listlessness, optimism, confusion, paranoia, love and hate, all stacked together with no room to do anything but flow into each other.
Running through it all is a sense of solitude, for good and bad, out of choice and out of necessity. Sheff bred his black sheep into dozens of different varieties, each its own creature, sharing in resemblance little besides that black sheep DNA.
Largely moodier, Black Sheep Boy Appendix stretched the theme, opening more doors on more sleeping demons, peeking behind more curtains, even repurposing some of the band’s older compositions. Originally seven songs, that chapter is now eight, adding the B-side “The Next Four Months.” And just as the There Swims a Swan started to point the way for Black Sheep Boy, the punchy Appendix single “No Key No Plan” offered a glimpse of the direction the band would take next on The Stage Names.
While the There Swims a Swan covers are both fantastic and fascinating as a prelude, it’s a bit of a shame the anniversary set doesn’t include any unreleased original material. The Appendix clearly fulfilled that role on the heels of the record, but if there remains any insight in the roads not taken of outtakes or buried songs, the band isn’t sharing. Regardless, revisiting the Black Sheep Boy albums at the 10-year mark finds nothing diminished in the power of the songs.