Okkervil River’s new album maps singer’s childhood
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 01:09
Music — good music — is almost always personal. More often than not, songs seek inspiration from memories, and records are rooted in real life experiences. It is this autobiographical element that attracts audiences time and time again; for listeners, authenticity is compelling.
Will Sheff knows this.
Sheff is the founder and frontman of Texas-based indie rock band Okkervil River, which recently released its eighth album, “The Silver Gymnasium,” on Sept. 3. The album is largely a remembrance of Sheff’s childhood, spent in a small, New England town during the 80s. This central theme of “growing up” is evident even before hearing the actual tracks. As a promotion for “Gymnasium,” Okkervil River’s website offers an interactive, retro-style computer game that allows users to control a teenage Sheff as he wanders around his city listening to the group’s new tunes on a Sony Walkman. The website also features an online version of the artwork included in the physical album itself. An intricate illustration of Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, N.H., makes the album, quite literally, a roadmap of the singer’s youth.
Musically, “Gymnasium” oozes nostalgia. However, listeners can rest assured that although Sheff’s sentimentality for the past is potent, it’s not overdone. Dexterously weaving various instrumental tones throughout the 11-song compilation, the tracks express a wide range of emotions while simultaneously maintaining a definitive cohesiveness. Lyrically, the songs avoid cliches: Sheff’s adolescent recollections aren’t generic, one-size-fits-all pieces. He instead sings about specific instances, often using hazy yet poetic phrases. Though the coming-of-age story is one of the oldest in the book, Sheff’s lyrics add a layer of depth to this tried-and-true subject.
The album opens with the piano-driven piece “It Was My Season.” Here, there is a distinct disconnect between the song’s sound and content. Springy and lighthearted, the track induces a foot-bouncing and finger-tapping frenzy before listeners have a chance to really hear the words. Despite the cheerful melody, “It Was My Season” is actually a lonely reminiscence of a fleeting young love. In the first lines, Sheff laments, “Tell me a reason / to break things off / or stop the bleeding.” Then, as the song picks up, he declares over thumping drums, “And if you want to stop our ‘thing’ you’ll stop my heart / all this pain inside’s still just too sharp.” Subtle references to VCRs and Atari suggest an 80s setting, adding an almost narrative-like aspect to the song.
Unlike “It Was My Season,” “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” the album’s fifth track, has lyrics that match the music. With a soft, unhurried lead in, the song contains a noticeably echo-y quality, lending a lonesome, even depressing air to the music. Muted vocals over the delicate, drawn-out strumming of an acoustic guitar fit effortlessly together with Sheff’s words: “We watch our old friends fall away / my heart feeling away / to watch our little town and see that / I know it wasn’t far, we’re leaving / oh, really we’re leaving.” This sad, melancholic atmosphere persists until the very last minute of the song, where Sheff revs up the third verse. The ending almost manages to mimic the joyful, positive disposition of previous songs — until the closing seconds when the music fades out, as quiet and wavering as it began.
Perhaps one of the most clear-cut songs of the record is “Stay Young,” a feel-good anthem embracing youth. The track begins at a slow and steady pace, repeating a series of three to four notes on what sounds like an electronic organ. After the first 30 seconds, the guitar takes over, an upbeat uprising against the heavy, measured stanzas that came earlier. In an instant, “Stay Young” leaps from a leisurely, strolling speed to a buoyant and skipping tempo. Over a high-pitched synthetic tinkling and the deep plunk of the bass enters Okkervil’s signature instrument, the trumpet. Paired with a jubilant harmonica solo, the brass injects even more zest into an already spirited song. Spreading high-level energy and uncontained enthusiasm, “Stay Young” is a song that all ages can enjoy.
“The Silver Gymnasium” is a unique take on a well-worn concept. Sheff commits fully to the album, which functions as a sort of aural documentary of his youth, with solid musical and lyrical substance. Although not every song is a winner, Sheff’s whole-hearted devotion to his overarching theme is what makes “The Silver Gymnasium” worth a listen.