Release Date: Sep 3, 2013
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop
My favourite story about Okkervil River’s music—and there are so many of them, so please bear with me as I parse them out, one by one—is actually about folk singer Tim Hardin. If you’re like me, you learnt about Hardin because of Okkervil River, in a lesson of the folk rock canon that frontman Will Sheff reversed. Hardin was the inspiration for Black Sheep Boy, the band’s insidious masterpiece, and one of his songs in particular was the premise for the album’s exponential loneliness.
Through his work with Okkervil River, Will Sheff has consistently been lauded as not simply a musician but that loftier thing: 'a writer'. It’s easy to see why, too; not since Richey Edwards parked his car on the Severn Bridge has a lyricist strangled so many syllables into songs with so much contempt for rhythm. The difference, of course, is that Sheff writes the music, too.
In our cover story on Jim James earlier this year, the My Morning Jacket frontman explained how he feels exhausted by negativity as he’s gotten older, even in music. “…When I look back to Nirvana records, or I look back to, like, Smashing Pumpkins records,” he said, “…they don’t feel useful to me. They feel destructive. They feel sad and gross.” Now, I don’t agree wholeheartedly with James.
Okkervil RiverThe Silver Gymnasium[ATO Records; 2013]By Rob Hakimian; September 5, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetMore or less exactly ten years ago Okkervil River put out their second (and arguably best) album Down The River of Golden Dreams. Their seventh full length, The Silver Gymnasium, features a song entitled “Down Down The Deep River.” It may be an overly simplistic way of looking at it, but comparing these two titles can tell you a decent amount about how the band has changed in the past decade. Whereas they used to be more romantic and wandering in their approach, their sound is now much more direct and to-the-point.
There have always been a few constants when it comes to an Okkervil River album: bruised and brooding melodies, eclectic and calculated arrangements, deep and poetic lyrics and gorgeous and menacing artwork. With these variables in place, the Austin indie-folk, alt-country ensemble has always presented itself with the utmost integrity and adherence to strong, sophisticated songwriting. Most of that is to the credit of frontman Will Sheff.
Never has Will Sheff run short of tales to tell. Over the years, it has become his norm to arch saturate prisms of story over loquacious mounds of musical verse. In the case of sister albums The Stage Names (2007) and The Stand Ins (2008), the disillusionment of performer life was transposed from screen to stage, respectively. The Silver Gymnasium also finds Okkervil River bedded in concept, only this time with a flair for nostalgia.
While it’s not as purely emotional or cathartic as 2005’s Black Sheep Boy or 2007’s The Stage Names, Austin indie rock staples Okkervil River‘s latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, is perhaps the best effort from the band since that previous spell of brilliance. And while it may not contain one standout song like Lost Coastlines from 2008’s The Stand Ins, The Silver Gymnasium is consistent and cohesive in its portrayal of innocence, childhood, and growing up, themes to which every listener can relate. The Silver Gymnasium opens strongly with piano pop track It Was My Season, on which Will Sheff recounts a controversial romance.
We think we make ourselves as teenagers, only to realise as we get older that it was the small world surrounding us in childhood that made us. For his seventh album with Okkervil River, frontman Will Sheff goes back to that small world: a village in New Hampshire in 1986, where his pre-adolescent self camped and played guitar, saw something in the woods that made him feel like a solid ghost, and began to understand he would shed even his best friends in the forward rush of life. Sheff is too smart a lyricist to succumb to simple nostalgia – "Show me my best memory, it's probably super crappy," he notes amid the watery loveliness of Pink-Slips – but he also understands its irrational appeal, that "constant panicked wishing for what's lost".
Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff has never shied away from dipping his pen into the seemingly bottomless inkwell of nostalgia that seems to permeate much of 21st century indie pop and rock, but on The Silver Gymnasium, the Lone Star State band’s seventh long-player, Sheff goes all in with a celebration/exorcism of his hometown of Meridian, New Hampshire, crafting an 11- track, exhaustively detailed audio-biography that comes off like a more idiosyncratic, less overbearing version of Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Sheff, born in 1976, imbues much of the record with a patina of (tasteful ) '80s AOR excess (listeners have the option to go online and explore the town using an 8-bit point and click adventure game), especially on album highlights like the expansive and disarmingly tragic "Down Down the Deep River," the bubbly ska and new wave-infused "Stay Young," and the hypnotic "Walking Without Frankie," the latter of which sounds like a dark, alternate universe rendering of J. Geils Band's "Freeze Frame.
Okkervil River’s seventh release is a big, sloppy-hearted trip back in time, an endearing pop rock set dedicated to Will Sheff’s misbegotten youth in Meriden, New Hampshire. The band marshals just about every 80s pop trick in the book — Hey! Hey! Hey! — to reclaim the dangerous idealism and self-destructive egotism that have since become the clichéd hallmarks of the era. What saves the album from its own sappiness, though, is that it seems less about the high school hallway shitstorms of the 1980s than the aftermath of those experiences on adulthood.
Frontman Will Sheff has always sung with the conviction and passion of someone plumbing deep wounds, his voice cracking with the effort. Okkervil River's seventh full-length effort, The Silver Gymnasium, finds the band a little more controlled, the emotions a bit more corralled, more focused. Perhaps this is a natural process of aging, or perhaps this is due to The Silver Gymnasium being an autobiographical record of Sheff's childhood in Meriden, New Hampshire in the '80s.
Okkervil RiverThe Silver Gymnasium(ATO Records)Rating: 4 out of 5 starsStream the album 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.
The official line is that Okkervil River’s last record, 2011’s ‘I Am Very Far’, was their first non-concept album in eight years. Its follow-up and the band’s seventh, ‘The Silver Gymnasium’, is the swashbuckling Texans’ first for major American alternative ATO Records after spending most of their career to date on Jagjaguwar – an evident attempt to do bigger business. While it’s billed as a concept record, for Okkervil lynchpin Will Sheff that really just means turning his novelist’s eye to a different aspect of his life.
Okkervil River occupy an intriguing conceptual space: part folk band, part rock band, part folk-statement on the rock band. Their best-loved album, Black Sheep Boy, took narrative inspiration from heroin-addled folk icon Tim Hardin, while 2011's I Am Very Far married a parody of rock'n'roll glory with its thrilling embodiment, shearing the band's folk roots. Seventh record The Silver Gymnasium is band leader Will Sheff's foray into autobiography, a milestone he apparently deems quite the occasion.
Director Wes Anderson's storybook world has a famously controlled quality, neat to the point of fastidiousness, in which the messiness of real-life emotions gets subsumed within a fog of placid, gentle ennui. Okkervil River's songs embody a more sinister realm, dotted with war criminals and child murderers, where emotion tends to react in more unexpected ways, via crescendo-timed explosions of curdled hope and wounded resentment. Yet these two worlds suddenly get a lot closer on The Silver Gymnasium, a nostalgic album about frontman Will Sheff's hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, circa 1986.
Physical copies of Okkervil River’s eighth album-- their ATO Records debut-- include a map of frontman Will Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, designed by the band’s long-time visual artist William Schaff. Points on the map correspond to songs on the tracklist to show where each is set. First single, “This Is Our Season", takes places at Plainfield Elementary School before heading west on Chellis Road; “Walking Without Frankie” wanders from Soucy’s Gas Station over to the Lake of the Strangled Crane.
Like plenty of literate heartland rock bands before them, Okkervil River riff on the theme of small-town youth. Their seventh album is set in mid-1980s New Hampshire and examines or reimagines the childhood of frontman Will Sheff. He's a fine lyricist and the songs are rich with detail of the hopes, frustrations and Atari computer games of his formative years without drifting into nostalgic reverie.
Okkervil River's seventh album is set in Meriden, New Hampshire (population 500), home of lead singer Will Sheff. The year is 1986 or thereabouts, putting Sheff at age eight or so, depending on the track. The songs are like campfire storytelling, capturing perfectly the simple ups and magnified downs of a rural upbringing. Sheff is a capable autobiographer, and the sometimes Counting Crows-like rambling narration seems like the kernel of a novel, or maybe a musical.
Okkervil River’s Will Sheff has, for a while now, been one of the most potent lyricists around, applying a literary craft to deconstruct and question the often mundane reality behind rock and roll mythology. While doing this, he has not sounded a happy chappy. His vocals have often veered towards manic yelps, spit-flecking the mic like Conor Oberst in a tin-foil hat while the rest of the band rattles along with a similar jagged intensity.While ‘The Silver Gymnasium’ retains some of the melancholy and shadow of the band’s previous efforts, in revisiting his childhood in the small New Hampshire town of Meriden in the mid-80s, Sheff seems to channel some of the optimism and energy of his youth in the delivery here.
opinion byADAM OFFITZER Okkervil River’s biggest and most powerful songs to date – “Unless It’s Kicks,” “Lost Coastlines,” and “Rider” – all rely on the same time-tested musical trope: the build-up. All three drive forward with a relentless, charging intensity, pushing beautiful melodies and catchy choruses to higher heights with each repetition, destined to be sing-along arena anthems. The band’s weaker tracks, on the other hand, tend to be muddled down by a darker mood and slower pace.
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.
Will Sheff has never been shy of ambition – something amply demonstrated by his work with both Okkervil River and, until he left in 2009, Shearwater – but The Silver Gymnasium is perhaps his most elaborate undertaking yet. Entirely autobiographical, the eleven songs of this seventh Okkervil record all take place back in 1986, in Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, NH. But The Silver Gymnasium more than eulogizes that time and space.
Okkervil River The Silver Gymnasium (ATO) Will Sheff strikes hardest when he's strafing the cultural subconscious, exhuming within his dense, hyper-literate narratives the tenuous traumas and defining details of his characters that sync to larger, and deeper social truths. He's also one of the few songwriters who works better behind a theme, his allusion-laden lyrics and arrangements layering best upon a concept. Okkervil River's seventh LP and ATO debut arrives as the Austin sextet's most directly conceptual, not only for the specificity of its setting (small town Meriden, New Hampshire, 1986), but also its particularly personal perspective of Sheff at age 10.
It would certainly be a different experience as a 10 year old growing up in small town USA in 1986 as compared to the present times. The world was perceived as less dangerous, with and boys and girls left to roam the neighbourhood on their own in search of adventures that would eventually define their character later in life. Since the onslaught of the fear campaign in American media over the past 12 years or so, it seems that the days of carefree exploration and discovery have been replaced by a more structured (and dare I say stifling) approach to childhood.
Okkervil River is like a baby deer. It’s captivating and enjoyable, even if you don’t particularly like deer. Even if you know one day they’ll chew up your tomato garden or wreck your car, you still just want to hug them, or hug someone, or get drunk alone. But now I’ve lost the analogy ….
Some people will call this album a masterpiece, while others will call it a fatuous mess. There is evidence of both. If you like story songs a la Ray Davies, Randy Newman, and Ryan Adams, you’ll enjoy some of singer Will Sheff’s tales of growing up in tiny Meriden, N.H., which had fewer than 500 residents when he was there in the ’80s. Ultimately, though, the album is weighed down by verbose lyrics and excess ambition.