The Silver Gymnasium
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Have you ever been to Meriden, New Hampshire? No, not likely. Outside of the village’s 300-some residents and the boarding school students at Kimball Union Academy, not many will pass through for business or even on a whim. But you’ve likely been somewhere like it, or at least as Okkervil River’s Will Sheff remembers it. Sheff grew up there, was bullied there, and flailed through awkward adolescence before fleeing there.
In his band’s latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff uses the village and his 1980s youth to capture themes as big as Springsteen’s middle-class dread of idling in nowhere towns. But Sheff confronts these ideas with subtlety rather than the Boss’s grandiosity. It’s Okkervil River’s most mature album yet—coming after six previous records that were already fully formed. While The Silver Gymnasium doesn’t have the brilliant what-the-fuck moments of, say, “John Allyn Smith Sails” moving from John Berryman references to a Beach Boys homage, it doesn’t need them. Sheff has focused his hyper-literate mind to make a record that his favorite authors would likely admire: He weaves very much from very little.
Okkervil River’s last album, I Am Very Far, was a departure in that it put the music on equal footing with Sheff’s lyrics. The Silver Gymnasium’s hooks are catchy enough and production by John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Kurt Vile, and many more) is as smart as Sheff’s vision, but the words are the true draw to this record. Sheff paints a portrait of a town where the adults are too confused to function and youths can only prevail if they stay young. It’s a familiar theme but made new with Sheff’s savvy touches: In “Down Down the Deep River,” for instance, a frantic father pleads to his lost-but-recently-found son, “Oh, kid, I’m not going anywhere. / I swear I’ll try to not be going anywhere.” That uncertain “try” in the second line is understated but heartbreaking.
The 1980s references to Atari and Walkmans might pin Sheff as a nostalgic (promo materials even include an 8-bit game tied to the album), but he quickly rejects that idea on the fourth track, “Pink-Slips,” when he sings, “This wish just to go back… when I know I wasn’t even happy! / Show me my best memory—it’s probably super crappy.” This isn’t the gooey Boomer nostalgia of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69.” This is wisely introspective and self-aware.
The Silver Gymnasium is the most concept-driven album of the band’s concept-heavy catalog. The track “White” will likely become a concert favorite with its sing-along refrain, “Summer’s here and I’m gonna crack, crack, crack.” But “White” is best where it is in the middle of the album’s other 10 tracks: a panicked midpoint in Sheff’s story arc where he seems to question whether it’s even possible to conquer small-town life in Meriden. This is soon followed by one of Sheff’s most clever lyrical moments when he interviews himself on “All the Time Every Day.” He asks questions like, “And when you could do so much, do you do fuck-all?” only to answer himself by sing-shouting, “All the time. Every day…” as a guttural horn section throws the listener back and forth through the mind of a man in a deep therapy session. Taken together with the full album, it’s a well-executed moment of darkness just before Sheff gets things sorted out in the final track, “Black Nemo.”
It ends with Sheff rationally viewing Meriden many years after he left: “I know you think you miss him. I know you think you knew him, but you were just passing through him.” Or perhaps not. Sheff’s lyrics are often cryptic. And maybe he would say the above interpretations are ridiculous. But that’s partly what makes this record great: It asks the listener to give their full attention at a time when most popular music asks very little of its audience. Listeners willing to completely dive in will be rewarded.