"I have this temptation to see how pretentious I can get," says the songwriter from his home in Austin, "and I fear one day I will incur great wrath for it."
It won't be anytime soon. Okkervil's latest album, Black Sheep Boy, follows the romantic meanderings of an outcast, the proverbial "black sheep" of the family. And though Sheff ranks among modern music's most literary songwriters, the album is neither pretentious nor academic, something Sheff learned to avoid in a 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 rich tapestries interweave hope and helplessness, bitterness and epiphany.
"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 that inspired this 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 a one-minute acoustic rendition of that tune, then segues into a surreal sequel that introduces his version of the character: a sad fellow who pursues indifferent objects of affection instead of wooing willing women.
Sheff sees this, the band's "fire" record, as an attempt to capture its raucous stage show. And indeed, Black Sheep Boy sounds defiantly ragged, with emphatic vocals, aggressively strummed riffs and percussive patterns that resemble foot-stomping temper tantrums. "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 unhinged "Lady Liberty" to mirror the wild experience of seeing the band live.
"I get really nervous onstage," Sheff says. "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 band he shares with Okkervil keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg. While he met his share of characters during his travels, Sheff didn't find any new protagonists 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, come 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 15 minutes, I could write a song about that, but it wouldn't be meaningful."
But especially in today's political climate, Okkervil River's vision of the outcast can resonate with the band's fans, from college-town crusaders to heavy drinkers in small Southern dives.
"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."