Okkervil River’s ‘The Silver Gymnasium’
Okkervil River’s new album, The Silver Gymnasium, began streaming on NPR’s first listen yesterday morning, a week before its release date. It’s their seventh album, the first of which deviates from their concept albums rooted in fictional narratives. The songs are set in Sheff’s hometown, Meriden, New Hampshire, and explore an 80’s childhood into adolescence. I had already gathered all of this from interviews and articles preceding the release. I’ve even explored an interactive map of the town and played the online adventure game with 80 style graphics and 8-bit melodies from the album, as I’m sure many fans have.
Black Sheep Boy is the most played album in my record collection, and as my activity on YouTube openly indicates, I favorite an Okkervil River video probably about once a week. Now that I have a chance to listen to The Silver Gymnasium in its entirety, I have opened up NPR’s Media Player, and I’m ready to do something I’ve never done before: review an album by jotting down my initial response to a track by track listen, straight through, without pausing. No repeats.
1. “It was My Season” – Alright, so I’ve already heard this song because they released a lyric video for it a couple of months ago, and yes, I’m singing along. Per usual, Will Sheff’s scratchy vocal style and intimate storytelling have invited me into a narrative that I’m sure will guide me through various heartbreaks, philosophical musings, and events in Sheff’s recollection of life in Meriden. Not to mention, the piano melody is catchy as hell.
2. “On a Balcony” – I’m getting the sense that, although personal rather than fictional, unlike Okkervil’s other albums, The Silver Gymnasium will still feature complex characters. Misty is the center of this one So far both tracks have been pretty upbeat. Sheff’s voice stretches to places it cannot reach, and it makes the music feel painful, just the way I like it. I wanna know what happened between Sheff and Misty!
3. “Down Down the Deep River” – I recognize the synth riff on this one from the online game. I’m definitely getting an 80’s pop rock vibe, which sets the scene. The line, “tell me about the greatest show, the greatest movie out, or the greatest song that you’ve taped off the radio, you play again and again and again, it cuts off at the end, though,” is great especially with his excited delivery. I’ve stopped trying to discern meaning from the lyrics for now, and I’m sure eventually there will be more interpretations of these lyrics on Songmeanings.net than I care to read. Sheff consistently creates a wildly vivid world with its own themes, locations, and characters up for interpretation.
4. “Pink-Slips” – This one slows down the pace a little bit. After a running start, this track let me catch my breath. I’m less enthusiastic about this song, but I felt the same way about “A Stone” on Black Sheep Boy, and it became one of my favorites. Moving on.
5. “Lido Pier Suicide Car” – The band released an acoustic version of this, and Sheff plays it in the actual Silver Gymnasium of which this album takes its name. Featuring minimal drums and an achy melody, it is the saddest song thus far. After a slow start, it picks up toward the end. Solid track.
6. “Where the Spirit Left Us” – I’m getting a serious “us against them” vibe from this track, and I don’t know who the opposition is, but I know when I was a kid, I felt like I was up against pretty much everything. This song isn’t as memorable as some of the others, but it captures an angsty adolescence.
7. “White” – For some reason when I read “autobiographical” as a description for this album, I naively assumed that every song would be Sheff’s 1st person account. This ain’t no memoir, and this song is super sexy.
8. “Stay Young” – I really dig this one. It’s super catchy, and I think the vocal delivery is flawless. It’s definitely influenced by 80’s rock. This too has an angsty teen vibe, and the introduction of brass instruments kind of comes out of left field. Probably my favorite song aside from the single, though, I’m not done yet!
9. “Walking Without Frankie” – This song is weird. The drums are in the front of the other instruments, accompanying the lyrics which are less ambiguous and philosophical and more focused in narrative. Especially with the chanting at the end, “Walking Without Frankie” sounds like it could be performed by a jubilant church choir. This should totally happen.
10. “All the Time Every Day” – I can picture Okkervil River playing this song at a school dance in the gym during the climax of an episode of Saved by The Bell, accompanying a montage of the cast’s faces as they passionately sing along and stare longingly into the camera.
11. “Black Nemo” – Here it is, the closing track. The guitar is pretty, and from what I can gather, it’s appropriate in its subject matter of time passing and “going away.” Sheff has to make the listener grow up and leave their parents’ house just like he did, and “Black Nemo” certainly ends on a good note.
And that concludes my gut response to the first of my many listens to The Silver Gymnasium. This was fun for what it was, but I’m sure my opinions will be totally different in a week or two. Goodnight, Will Sheff, my sweet, artistically ambitious prince.