Sheff has been searching for a subject around which to build an album. He constructed Okkervil River's earlier releases with unifying themes in mind: 2001's Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See, with its country-spurred murder ballads, was the band's "earth" record; 2003's Down the River of Golden Dreams, with its seaside infidelities and nautical metaphors, was the "water" record. But he had never followed a dynamic lead through an entire song cycle. It's not that he lacked compelling options -- witness Don't Fall in Love's lonely ballerina estranged from her daughter or Down the River's repentant war criminal who wishes he could "restore their lives then give back my own." Sheff's problem was that when he attempted to string songs together using a central character, he saw his lyrics disintegrate into meta-meaninglessness.
Based around a suddenly successful actor and his abandoned ex-wife, "Song About a Star" ranks among Down the River's strongest tracks. Its smartly constructed chorus erases the spurious connection between audiences and onscreen celebrities as it emphasizes the ephemeral nature of fame: "Think you see him? He's not there; that's just light that's not yet dead/Wait two hours and watch what'll be there instead." However, Sheff scrapped a planned trilogy after recoiling from a too-clever song about a movie set in which items from the other tunes appeared on the prop table.
"It was all very collegiate," the songwriter says from his home in Austin. "I have this temptation to see how pretentious I can get, and I fear one day I will incur great wrath for it."
So far, Sheff has kept his ostentatiously abstruse tendencies away from his albums. While he ranks among modern music's most literary songwriters, he stops short of turning lyrics into inaccessible, unfeeling academic exercises. He learned to draw the line during a pivotal pre-Okkervil stint at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he studied in a writer's program.
"I really hated the institutional approach," Sheff says. "I would write a story from a woman's perspective, and everyone would say, 'You don't have the authority to do that.' Workshopping is just as lame as test screening for Hollywood blockbusters. Instead of creating a lowest-common-denominator piece of shit, it creates a highbrow tool for polished uniformity that's politically in line with what everyone is thinking at that particular second. Institutions ruin things."
Putting aside poetry and fiction writing, Sheff formed a gothic rustic-rock trio, named it after a Tatyana Tolstoya short story (which borrowed its title from a Russian river) and developed a distinct lyrical voice. His thick tapestries interweave hope and helplessness, love and loss, bitterness and epiphany. On paper, some songs read like turbulent tear-jerkers, but jarringly jubilant backdrops and Sheff's achingly conflicted vocals give them an emotional intensity that transcends sad or happy.
"It might sound pompous, but we want to make ecstatic music," Sheff says. "We're trying to write songs with contradictory feelings. So much thoughtful music gets called sad, which says a lot about what pop music means to people."
Sheff's style fits perfectly with the star-crossed subject of 1960s folk singer Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy," a song Sheff decided would catalyze his first concept album. Hardin's golden-curled loner, his "family's unowned boy," tells the ladies who flock to him, "If you love me, let me live in peace." Sheff opens the record with an acoustic one-minute rendition of that tune, then segues into a surreal sequel that introduces his version of the character: a woeful fellow who pursues uncaring objects of affection instead of shooing away willing women.
"Black sheep boy, blue-eyed charmer, head hanging with horns from your father": This is the half-human hybrid, horns curling above his ears like petrified tentacles, who appears on the album's cover. Sheff shifts between animalistic imagery and authentic anguish. Leaving a trail of "muddy hoofprints," the black sheep boy can be violent and vindictive, "killing softly and serial" and vowing to "tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws." However, context suggests he's provoked by passion, chivalrously attempting to defend the honor of a former lover who's perfectly willing to suffer her indignity in silence. "You should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours," he demands, his voice cracking with righteous rage.
Black Sheep Boy sounds defiantly ragged, with angrily emphatic vocals, aggressively strummed riffs, and assertive percussive patterns that resemble temper-tantrum foot-stomps.
Sheff sees this, the band's "fire" record, as an attempt to capture its riotously raucous -- and previously incongruous -- stage show. "The Latest Toughs," a high-velocity power-pop number that recalls Elvis Costello at his most caustic ("Your slaughter's been arranged, my little lamb, and it's too late to talk the knife out of their hands"), might be the first recorded Okkervil River song since Don't Fall in Love's invigoratingly unhinged "Lady Liberty" to mirror the live experience.
"I get really nervous onstage, noticing how certain people are looking at me and thinking about the songs and me emotionally," Sheff says. "I don't want people to think that the meaning of the song is enacting itself in my performance. It freaks me out. And it's hard to have the right energy and not feel like you're bashing your head into the wall, to be present in the song without turning into a flailing idiot. So I get drunk and focus on having fun. When we have a celebratory time, it gives us more confidence. The songs turn out loud, loose and spastic. We want it to hurt a little bit more."
Sheff spent nearly all of last year on the road, either with Okkervil River or with Shearwater, a concurrent band with keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg. While he met his share of potentially engaging protagonists during his travels, Sheff didn't find any new characters around which to arrange his next album.
"You meet lots of fascinating, outrageous people with amazing stories, but you don't get a chance to get to know them very well," he says. "I write based on people I know, and my love and concern, my actual connections and feelings, comes through in the songs. If I were to meet a sword-swallower in the circus who escaped from Nazi Germany in a packing crate, and I talked to him for fifteen minutes, I could write a song about that, but it wouldn't be meaningful."
Besides, Okkervil River's vision of the Black Sheep Boy already encompasses a considerable cross-section of its fans, from the college-town cause crusaders to the genial heavy drinkers in small Southern dives. Anyone on the wrong side of the increasingly strident standards used to discern morality could see himself in Sheff's beleaguered outcast.
"It's a sanctimonious time in America," Sheff says. "I'm fascinated with people who do wrong, know that it's wrong and don't really care. It's like the hard-boiled existentialism in old blues songs: 'Fuck you, that's what I did, I don't give a shit, I'll see you in Hell.'"