by Amanda Roscoe Mayo, Marfa Public Radio contributor
No matter where you are in the world there are days that feel exactly like they did when you were a kid. That light through the trees takes you back to crisp Midwest autumn, or humid summer nights recall memories of catching lightning bugs and playing cops and robbers with the neighbors. Nostalgia is often thought of with a positive connotation, but not always. Will Sheff, the creative force behind Okkervil River writes about his experience growing up in the small town (less than 500 people) of Meridian, NH. The Silver Gymnasium is peppered with teenage struggles, loss and love, standing out from the crowd, and the familiar challenge (to a certain generation) of taping songs off the radio.
The album does not take chronological shape, but rather focuses on a particular moment in the young Sheff’s life, a coming of age account is bookended by the before and after, focusing not just on the pinnacle moment but largely the 1980s. The first track, “It Was My Season” sets the tone for the project. It’s not emotional in the sense that the memories are opening up old wounds, but is told from the perspective of someone who has made peace with the past. In the song Sheff dates the moment for us singing about the immediacy of teenage love and “if you want to stop our ‘thing’ you’ll stop my heart. All this pain inside’s still just too sharp.” Clever breadcrumbs lead the way to Meridian, NH in the late 1980s with mentions of VCRs and Ataris.
This concept album isn’t just a story; it’s the story of the memory. Sheff’s lyrics have always been intellectual and narrative, but what he captures on The Silver Gymnasium is the feeling of the memory coupled with the disorienting realization that memories are not always accurate representations of truth. It is often the feeling we remember most clearly rather than the specific events that caused that feeling. This record goes beyond being picked last in gym class with songs like “Down Down the Deep River,” about experiencing the first major tragedy in one’s life. Parental reassurance plays a large part here as Sheff sings words from his father, “…you’ll be alright because I’ll be right here. Oh, kid, I’m not going anywhere, I swear I’ll try to not be going anywhere. Though it’s not all right, it’s so far from all right.”
The performance of the lyrics is unique to Okkervil River. Sheff’s writing style holds a cadence more closely redolent of prose. He has the musical ability to insert words inside of beats that don’t follow a typical methodology, speeding up certain sentences, slowing down others, putting emphasis in unexpected places. Magnified in songs like “Pink Slips,” “Stay Young,” and “Walking With Frankie,” Sheff rarely sounds out of breath, but there is a slight emotional strain and concentration on making sure the words get out. This is what makes The Silver Gymnasium so exciting.
Okkervil River is not unfamiliar with the singer-songwriter tag. In a lot of ways this album does not deviate from that genre; the focus is on the lead singer who, additionally, has written all the songs. The sound is more full, though, resonating beyond the typical singer-songwriter front. A full band backs Sheff with the usual compliment of instrumentation but horns, wineglasses, synthesizers, and casio keys also make appearances. This album is pretty pop for the band, the upbeat orchestral moments allow the listener to access the darkness in a more “real” way than on previous Okkervil River records. It allows for a choice, we can be right alongside Sheff’s anxiety and young adult downfalls and or we can focus on the happy confusion and triumph found on the roller coaster ride of growing up. Personal growth aside, this record is by no means innovative, but the quality of songwriting is unmatched.
The Silver Gymnasium is out Snow on ATO Records. For more information on Will Sheff and the incredible animated artwork accompanying the album, visit okkervilriver.com.
This article was originally published by KQED. The author is a former staffer at Marfa Public Radio.