Okkervil River’s new album, their seventh, is like several of their previous recordings, a concept album, in that it takes us back to a 1980s childhood and adolescence, specifically that of mainman Will Sheff, and is set in his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire. This is the most personal songwriting Sheff has done to date, although it is still far from confessional. Instead, the narrator of most of these songs comes across as an uncomfortable observer, looking back to a more innocent yet also unsettling time, when mistakes were made, emotions were still raw, and life was being learned about. Some of his fellows, as explored in songs like ‘Lido Pier Suicide Car’ and ‘Walking with Frankie’, didn’t make it.
The ’80s are now almost universally derided as ‘the decade that taste forgot’, but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t all shoulder pads and mullets. This is, after all, the time when the likes of REM, the Smiths and the Go-Betweens flourished. But Sheff and his early adolescent chums wouldn’t have discovered those bands quite yet, still stuck as they were with a nascent MTV. There’s even an affectionate and evocative mention of “the greatest song that you taped off the radio / Play it again and again (it cuts off at the ending, though)” in ‘Down Down the Deep River’, one of the more epic tracks here, replete with a synth keyboard solo redolent of Cheap Trick.
Period references are present but not heavy-handed, for example the VCR and Atari of ELO-ish opener ‘It Was My Season’, the Walkman of ‘Where the Spirit Left Us’. There are shades of the suburban unease of movies like Donnie Darko, Dazed and Confused, even Blue Velvet. In fact, the nearest point of comparison, thematically if not musically, might be Arcade Fire’s 2010 album, The Suburbs, or even their first (and still best), 2004’s Funeral. But Okkervil River are a much more aware, complex proposition than Montreal’s finest, since although Win Butler got it right first time out, his constant references to ‘the kids’ by the time he got to The Suburbs quickly grew tiresome. Sheff is too self-conscious a writer to ever appear so gauche.
Therein, in a way, lies the problem with The Silver Gymnasium. Okkervil River have always been a cerebral outfit, easy to admire but harder to love, as they say. Sheff is frequently praised for being ‘literate’, but too often he is just ‘wordy’, which is not quite the same thing. One gets the sense he likes you to know that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Now, it would be naive to argue that you can’t be clever and rock’n’roll at the same time, but imagine if Roky Erikson had been backed on his comeback True Love Cast Out All Evil by an outfit like White Denim or Wooden Shjips, rather than Sheff (whose heart is clearly in the right place) & co., and maybe you’ll get what I’m driving at.
This uptightness, for want of a better word, isn’t helped here by the very clean production work of John Agnello, a man who helmed several projects by ’80s luminaries like Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp. Still, this is Okkervil River’s first major label album, for ATO, having jumped up from Jagjaguwar, so maybe they’re in search of a wider audience. The compromise, if such it is, could prove counterproductive, however.
The standout track is the penultimate, ‘All the Time Every Day’, where the passion of the vocal delivery of verse questions and chorus responses gets into stride with the emotions expressed. Otherwise, while The Silver Gymnasium has much to recommend it, it is far from the group’s best. Interested parties would be well advised to start elsewhere, with The Stage Names or The Stand Ins, or even better, Black Sheep Boy or I Am Very Far.