"I've always felt like there's something a little pat and a little silly about concept albums," says singer and chief songwriter Will Sheff, "and I felt like if I took time to construct some clear story and had to work in exposition and all this stuff that I'd be opening myself up for ridicule. I also think it's good to not even know yourself exactly where something is going or what something means."
Black Sheep Boy takes its title and its central image from the song of the same name by doomed singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, who achieved modest success with his song "If I Were a Carpenter" - which he professed to hate. While Sheff was familiar with the popular covers of Hardin's songs by Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, and Johnny Cash, he admits, "It wasn't until about three years ago that I heard Hardin's original versions. I was struck by the economy of his language, the sensitivity of his singing voice, and the sophistication of his arrangements. Incorporating Tim Hardin into an album was a nice way of personally getting closer to his work and, in a way, to him."
Sheff envisioned "a more literal interpretation of the title character," a real black sheep boy who appears sporadically throughout the album, most notably on the title track (obviously) and on the climactic "So Come Back, I Am Waiting." The album's only recurring character, the black sheep boy might represent Hardin himself, who died of a drug overdose in 1980. "I tried to base a lot of what happens in the songs around parallels in Hardin's life, including places and names that specifically have to do with him," Sheff explains. However, "as things went on and I became wary of creating an album that was too packed with competing ideas, I toned down some of the biography."
The album's title character could also be Sheff himself, who admits that these are his most personal songs to date. But Black Sheep Boy doesn't fit the confessional singer-songwriter mode either. "I feel like straight autobiography is sort of boring," he says, "so I always take care to change, shuffle, or distort details of autobiographical songs so that they're all, in the strictest sense, fictional. In this way, I feel like I can perversely make the song even more personal than it would be if I had to be constrained by details."
And Sheff sings these songs like he's invested much into them. His impassioned vocals - which have been compared to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum - sound quiet and measured on slower songs such as "In a Radio Song" and "A Stone," but erupt fearsomely on heavier songs such as "The Latest Toughs" and "For Real." On the stand-out "Black," about a man trying to console a lover whose father abused her, he sings, "And I can still see the cigarette's heat/I can't believe all that you're telling me." Sheff seethes that last word harshly, stressing the full impotent anger of a devoted but helpless lover.
Lyrically, the darkness of "Black" is commensurate with the gravity of the subject matter ("I'd call some black midnight, fuck up his new life where they don't know what he did/Tell his brand-new wife and second kid"), but the music itself is, conversely, energetic and upbeat, seemingly at odds with the song's tone. "I think 'Black' would be a lot less interesting and a less complicated listening experience if we hadn't allowed it to become so poppy on the surface," says Jonathan Meiburg, whose ascending keyboard riff propels the song to its catchy climax.
Black Sheep Boy proves just as ambitious musically as conceptually, and the band orchestrates Sheff's songs with eclectic instrumentation and intricate arrangements. Horns lift the unrequited love poem "A Stone," guitars punctuate "For Real" like shotgun reports, and Travis Nelson's drum gives "A Song for Our So-Called Friend" its gently galloping tempo. As Sheff says, "I think that the key thing with pop arrangements, at least it's been the key thing for this band, is to serve the song and not to do anything that's too showy or distracts too much from the general feel."
As a result, the album's impact hits the head and the heart with equal force: It brims with messy emotions and intricate ideas about music, romance, friendship, and loss. The sessions for Black Sheep Boy were so productive that a follow-up EP is planned for November. With non-album tracks alongside newly recorded material, The Black Sheep Boy Appendix will be more of a final exorcism than a reshash. "We tried to burrow even deeper into that material," Sheff says, "as a way of scraping out everything left in it that seemed worthwhile and, in the process, doing our best to exhaust and destroy the whole Black Sheep Boy theme for good."