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. I think there’s plenty of room in the world for shadow, and sometimes exploring the murk helps you, and hopefully listeners, get out of it. Then again, I’m also a bit younger than he is. And, at a certain age, singing about drug addicts, murderers, and washed-up celebrities probably starts to feel a little too heavy, even if you do so through songs that are highly literate and boundless in their creativity. I’d argue that Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names, and The Stand Ins are all works of genius, but they’re also very, very dark. In his review for the The Stand Ins, CoS Editor-In-Chief Michael Roffman even “wonder[ed] what [Okkervil River] might sound like happy.”
So, it was only a matter of time before Will Sheff and Co. began walking toward the light, especially after the alienation, freak-show crescendos, and destroyed file cabinets of 2011’s underrated I Am Very Far. Here, inside The Silver Gymnasium, they’re replaced by unfussy arrangements beaming with appropriately retro keyboards (we’ll get to that in a bit), sunny horns, and traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. I’m not sure if I’d call it a completely happy album, as there’s still darkness creeping around the edges, and also because it defies simplification. And yet maybe that’s the point. Okkervil River wanted to create something that was accessible. They wanted to create something that had warmth. When Sheff cites Bob Seger as an influence — particularly the heartland rocker’s unapologetic sense of nostalgia — he’s not joking.
It’s odd, in a way, because if there was ever a record where fans should expect Sheff to be subversive, sardonic, and blackly funny, it’s this one. The Silver Gymnasium is about his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, circa 1986, a tiny village where the songwriter admits he was bullied throughout his childhood. It’s a community he’d have every right to despise, but doesn’t. Despite any residual pain, Sheff recognizes the inherent magic of the place where you grew up, especially when viewed through your childhood memories, which, as he pointed out in our recent interview, often become indistinguishable from dreams and fantasies. Although the album is peppered with small-town tragedy, or at least regret, as well as a sense that the then ten-year-old Sheff will eventually get out, it also brims with imagination and the natural majesty found in The Granite State.
Nearly every song embodies this symbiotic relationship of adolescent daydreams and the ominous real world, as if each tune was its own coming-of-age novella. Opener “It Was My Season” pulls back the school auditorium curtains on Meriden in the simplest way, introducing the autumnal hamlet with bouncy tavern piano, as Sheff sings about inevitably coming to a fork in the road with his childhood friend as they got older (“They say I’ll go to college/ and you will stay home”). In “Down Down The Deep River”, that same friend dies, possibly at the hands of an adult (the lyrics mention “your uncle and his friend,” who “seem like very bad men”). But whereas an earlier song in his catalog in “Black” left the narrator thirsting for revenge, “Down Down The Deep River” sees him being scooped up by his father in the middle of crying his eyes out in the woods. “You’ll be alright because I’ll be right here,” dad assures his son. Sheff, along with his deceased pal, also find another guardian by the end: “a great gold spirit in the summer sky” that seems to watch over every last townsperson, regardless of their sins. The entity pops up in several other songs as well, a sort of spiritual watchdog and possible creator of the town.
This rare idea (at least in Okkervil River terms) of goodness prevailing shines once more in “Pink-Slips”, where one of Meriden’s citizens (possibly Sheff, due to mentions of traveling to Texas) scours the country for stardom and self-destructive behavior. But even then, the protagonist finds solace in the halcyon memories of his younger days. “Only happy ’til the age of ten is still a gift,” he sings as the music stops, then kicks back in with dreamlike theremin and crab-walking bass. Everything slows down as the song segues into “Lido Pier Suicide Car”, where the character’s barhopping travelogue becomes hazy with stoned visions of starships and the sea, both of which add more color to the storybook matte of Meriden.
Three tracks later, “Stay Young” bursts from the speakers with a beat that nears third wave ska, its brass, sugary synth line, and positive mantra making it the most spritely thing Okkervil River has ever recorded. “Open up your heart, show me the place where love is missing/ How long have you been missing love?” Sheff asks. His earnestness prevents the words from being corny, and the throwback instrumentation convincingly drives home The Silver Gymnasium‘s 1986 setting. There are lyrical hints of that bygone era throughout the record without beating the listener over the head, as well: Walkmen, VHS cassettes, Ataris, Cutlass Cruisers, and songs taped off the radio (does anyone still do that?), to name a few.
For those who want to dive further down the vintage rabbit hole, the band has even developed an 8-bit video game where you can play as a ten-year-old Sheff, wandering through Meriden in search of his sister and the mystical location of the title. A live, solo version of “Lido Pier Suicide Car” was also recorded in the real-life version of the gym. Although The Silver Gymnasium‘s final track, ”Black Nemo”, summons a phantasmagorical mirage of Sheff leaving Meriden behind, these various labors of love, as well as the album’s bittersweet tone, point to him always going back. Or maybe he never left his hometown. Have any of us, really?
Essential Tracks: “Down Down The Deep River”, “Pink-Slips”, and “Lido Pier Suicide Car”