The Silver Gymnasium
, October 16th, 2013 08:16
Okkervil River's seventh album is inspired by singer Will Sheff's childhood in the small New Hampshire town of Meriden (population: 500). As such, it is a record that beautifully evokes a magical, almost otherworldly sense of what it is to be a child. It is spick and span - easily the most polished the group have ever sounded - yet it retains a sense of urgency and tension found throughout their catalogue, and, while a generous and welcoming listen, it doesn't shy away from the darker side of things, either.
It stands in stark contrast to 2011's dense, often mystifying I Am Very Far, an album in which Sheff challenged himself to make something elemental and uncompromising. Recorded with veteran producer John Agnello (who has worked with acts from Cyndi Lauper to Dinosaur Jr.), its eleven songs might feasibly alarm long-term fans of the group at first, such is the opening salvo's relentlessly bright sound. Songs like 'On A Balcony' and 'Down Down The Deep River' in particular delight in swooping backing vocals, crisp electric guitars and bursts of propulsive brass; for all their immediacy, it does take a few listens for them to carve out their own identities.
'White' and 'Pink-Slips', however, are two of the sharpest and most rewarding songs that the band have ever written, and find them operating at the very top of their game. The former is the latest in a series of 'colour songs' that began with 'Red', which opened the band's 2001 debut Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See. As per Sheff, these songs have "[a lot] to do with the way that your family situation when you're young affects sexuality." Neatly structured around changes in season, its narrator sketches out a family history in just a few deft strokes. 'Pink-Slips', meanwhile (a North American term for a P45), fuses Sheff's talent for allusive, evocative imagery with a snappy, irresistible hook.
The idea of doing an "autobiographical, small-town nostalgia record" is something that has long appealed to Sheff. Wrapping up promotional duties for I Am Very Far, he returned to his hometown for the first time in 15 years to find that it hadn't actually changed all that much, solidifying his notion that the band's next project would find him delving deep into his own past. Childhood is a subject that has echoed throughout the band's records, and perhaps The Silver Gymnasium's greatest success is to capture Sheff's own formative years in a manner that is both sweet and true, specific and universal. "Tell me I'm always going to be your best friend," he sings on 'Down Down The Deep River'; "You said it one time - why don't you say it again?" Warm memories of early friendship and parental love are set alongside a (never fully-explained) local tragedy involving a group of teenagers: as in many of these songs, intimations of a darker, 'adult' world yet to be fully comprehended abound.
The Silver Gymnasium is strewn with the paraphernalia of a 1980s childhood: Atari consoles; cassette tapes and the Walkman; The Last Starfighter. It is also enormously empathetic: as evidenced on the Black Sheep Boy cycle, Sheff is drawn to drifters and outcasts - the kind of people that live in the margins of normal society, who are given a shout-out on moving closer 'Black Nemo'. The song does a fantastic job of encompassing much of the album's content, referencing other songs and filtering it all through an impressionistic, dreamlike lens. Sheff's lyrics here rank among his very best, too; while much of the album hares along, the pace lets up while he reluctantly embraces the fact that everything eventually ends.
It isn't a perfect LP, but even a song like 'All The Time Every Day', which feels like something of an island (in that it doesn't really relate to the album's principal theme), makes good; effectively a study of paralysing depression dressed up as a barnstorming indie-rock tune, its resolution is one of solidarity and hope. The new wave synth and bursts of saxophone on 'Stay Young', however, are an ill fit for the band, and a song like 'Walking Without Frankie' - all moody riffs and classic rock tropes - also comes off overly pastiche. That these two seem to lack a sense of affection the other songs are soaked in might have something to do with it.
These are minor flaws, however, in what is a triumphant new phase for the band. A stirring evocation of childhood, community and the nature of memory, The Silver Gymnasium suits being pored over as much as it does driving on a sunny day - and it suits both very well indeed.