Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Okkervil River are one of those bands I still think of as a young band despite not being all that young anymore. Will Sheff is almost forty. That fact is insane to me, because I have this impression of him frozen in carbonite. It’s a mental snapshot I took the first time I saw Okkervil River. I’d downloaded their debut Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See off of the long defunct file-sharing site AudioGalaxy (for whom, I recently read, Sheff contributed music writing, in a weird twist of fate). I thought “Red” was one of the most sad and beautiful songs I had ever heard, and I was hearing it at a time when I was really truly branching out from punk rock. I think I’d heard Neutral Milk Hotel for the first time a month or two before. It was a fragile time, a place where unbeknownst to me the tastes I would carry for the rest of my life were cementing. And written in the concrete of the basketball of my favorite bands Will Sheff, on stage at the Bottleneck in Lawrence in early 2004 standing atop the bass drum as he furiously pounds out the acoustic chords of “Westfall” or “It Ends in a Fall” or “Kansas City” and almost breaking his ankle on the dismount. I’d gone to very few shows at that point in my life, and Will Sheff was the first singer I ever saw who projected this surreal honesty with this look on his face that could only be read as, “This is the most important thing in the world to me.” I barely even went to that show and it’s one of the most important shows I ever went to.
I had a few more weird encounters with Sheff over the next decade. Once outside the men’s room at the Mohawk during SXSW where I was going in and recognized him, froze up, and kind of steeled myself to tell him how much his songs meant to me and he seemed genuinely appreciative of my worship. A few years later, in the wake of I Am Very Far I got the chance to interview Sheff for the Pitch. I spent a week pumping myself up and hammering out questions. I hate interviews, because I am perpetually nervous about people I admire. Scheduling conflicts arose and I ended up having to settle for an e-mail interview which is barely an interview at all but it remarkably turned out not bad considering I received the answers to my questions and had to write the intro and edit the piece in the Dunn Brothers parking lot in 15 minutes while hijacking their free internet. There’s another important aspect of Okkervil River that makes them so important to me: They’ve never made a bad album.
Okkervil River has been putting out records for more than a decade and each one has been excellent. The early ones are a little more ragged but in a charming way. A way that dictates potential and now those records only pale when compared to such towering achievements as Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names. Every one of their albums is tied to a specific time and place. Black Sheep Boy is married to a particularly nasty break-up, the Stand-Ins attached to the first weeks my wife and I dated. The Silver Gymnasium finds me at a time where I am writing a novel about the pitfalls of high school romance, and it feels rather fitting. The Silver Gymnasium is an allegedly autobiographical account of Sheff’s upbringing in tiny Meriden, New Hampshire and plays out like a series of half-remembered memories, myths, and brutal truths with production and instrumentation recalls the mid-1980s in which these songs are set.
Glossy synthesizers and errant sax solos dot the landscape as Sheff digs into the heavy shit of youth. For the first time in their career, Okkervil River has made a true grower. This was problematic at first and led to much hand wringing at the concept that Okkervil River made an album I didn’t like. But then the songs caught up, the themes sank in, and the emotional depth that Sheff bakes into his songs started to seep through. Upon a dozen listens, I realized my initial trepidation was caused by “Stay Young” and “Walking Without Franking.” The songs appear back to back at the back half of the album and I wanted to skip them every time I listened to the album. “Stay Young” just doesn’t feel up to the standard of quality of the rest of the album and comes off as almost lazy. The synthesizers bray and the song feels like a misguided dance track. The melody is flat and the words feel crudely wrapped around the music. “Walking Without Frankie” is a little better but still feels like a non-starter despite a compelling lyrics sheet.
Still, my qualms are minor and both “Stay Young” and “Walking Without Frankie” could very well grow on me as I continue to absorb the album over the course of the year. The rest of the songs are the sort of songs you have come to expect from Okkervil River: beautifully written and composed tunes that pull at your heart, cause you to pore over the lyrics, and make your life feel a little fuller. “Down Down the Deep River” not only feels like the key that cracks this whole album open and is the most tightly composed track the band has ever put together. A nostalgic synthesizer plays out the melody at first, but as the song rolls along it’s ultimately reduced to a supporting role by horns and a pretty little harpsichord. The song feels full and heavy and as I was feeling my way through this album in the dark, that’s the one that turned the light on.
The Silver Gymnasium feels a bit like a tragedy, which I suppose is how one’s youth occasionally looks in hindsight. Opener “It Was Our Season” is a terrifically sad account of young, doomed love and “Where the Spirit Left Us” and the aforementioned “Down Down the Deep River” just sort of ache. Come to think of it, all of the songs sort of ache. Fortunately, all of that ache is counterbalanced by the swagger in Pink-Slips,” the jaunty, horn-driven “On a Balcony,” and the martial trajectory of “White.” Sheff is a songwriter who has always poured his heart out onto the page, but The Silver Gymnasium feels so personal it comes across as cryptic, which makes it all the more alluring. I have no clue what “Lido Pier Suicide Car” is about, but the way it builds from the quietest moments on the record to some of the most transcendent gives me shivers.
Will Sheff has clearly pushed his songwriting to a new level and the band manages roll with the punches and incorporate new elements like they’ve been there all along. The Silver Gymnasium is a complicated record, easily the most difficult Okkervil River has crafted to date. It’s a period piece that pays a consistent homage to the music of the 80s and while not all of it works, most of it does and at the end of it all you still get the impression that there are bands out there who, despite having carved out a sound that people love, never get comfortable and keep pushing past their limits.
"It Was Our Season"
"Lido Pier Suicide Car," performed in the Silver Gymnasium of the album's namesake, because of course.