Okkervil River continue to break the glass between messy nerves and orchestrated elegance on their fourth full-length, Black Sheep Boy, titled after the lovely song penned by Tim Hardin with which the band opens the record. However, their take on the song feels a bit rushed and uneventful, which knocks the tender breath from the lyrics and presents a clumsy start. Opening the record this way is the singular yet major complaint of the album, ironically pushing "Black Sheep Boy," the intended centerpiece, to the outskirts of the album's overall feel. Thankfully, the song spans only a short minute, so when "For Real" gently slips into motion, then cracks with a surprise beating of guitar stabs, that's when the confident dynamics Okkervil River established on their fine 2003 album, Down the River of Golden Dreams, break free. This confidence never wanes through the remainder of the album; it is here that the bandmembers sound like they are emotionally attached to the material and here that the album should've begun. Black Sheep Boy's mix of warm strings with Wurlitzer, barroom piano, horns, and vibes effectively creates a spatial and moody balance to the electric guitar attacks and roomy drums. With these songs, clear desperation creeps through and gives the impression that the band could've fallen to pieces at any moment -- but somehow held it all together -- and the catalyst of the whole passage is Will Sheff's thick, spitting voice pleading with the cascading dissonance and majesty of the arrangements. Tracks like "In a Radio Song," a song similar to the moody explorations of Saturday Looks Good to Me's precursory group, Flashpapr, are where these arrangements take the foreground, but equally effective are the forward, uptempo tracks that are less expansive, such as the super-hooky "The Latest Toughs," with its compressed falsetto singsong backing vocals, and the bouncy screaming "Black." Save the title track, Okkervil River continue to deliver the quality of Down the River of Golden Dreams, and though sonic evolution is barely existent from that recording, perhaps it doesn't need to be; certainly Sheff's songwriting still floats above that of his peers.
AllMusic Review by Gregory McIntosh