Okkervil River: The Silver Gymnasium (Cooperative/ATO Records)
Okkervil Rivers’ new album represents an autobiographical U turn by underground Americana faithfuls says Joe Whyte.
Okkervil River have been quietly getting on with putting out some quite astonishing records since they formed in Austin, Texas in 1998. The pick of the bunch have been 2007’s The Stage Names and concept album (wait, keep reading!) Black Sheep Boy in 2005 which pretty much launched them into the consciousness of those who care about good music played well and a little bit differently.
Their music has mostly, up till now, been in the alt country/indie genre – that’s not up for debate but Will Sheff, main writer, singer and lyricist is so much more. His lyrics are imagery stuffed and at times almost overcrowd the music like a slightly neurotic Willy Vlautin (he of Richmond Fontaine) hopped up on caffeine. If you try and imagine a Texan version of Mark E. Smith without the snarly attitude and a more widescreen vision lyrically, you’re still only halfway there.
Little of Okkervil River albums are ever the same; they plough a furrow that’s as single minded as it is enthralling.
The Silver Gymnasium is a slight departure in that Sheff relinquishes the producers chair and lets John Agnello (fresh from Kurt Vile‘s excellent releases) push the faders. The album is, again, something of a concept album but don’t let that put you off. The Drive By Truckers Southern Rock Opera was a concept album and that is a complete masterpiece, albeit a masterpiece about Lynyrd Skynyrd ….
This time, Sheff has scripted a record that revisits his home town and the songs are written through the somewhat opaque view of his younger self and as a man returning to the place in which his personality was shaped.
The Silver Gymnasium is set in a very specific time and place from Sheff’s childhood – in 1986 in the small town of Meriden NH, where Sheff’s parents worked as teachers for a boarding school. Sheff conceived the album as a tribute to the spirit of pre-adolescence, meant to evoke the nostalgic feeling of “an action figure you found in the woods.”
Despite this, the album has little of a nostalgic feeling and more of a through the looking glass trippy feel to it. Opening song It Was My Season is a joyous romp with horns ablaze amongst the gossamer guitars.
The production is lighter than previous albums and the less dense instrumentation gives the songs space to breath. Sheff has clearly been listening to a lot of the songs from his youth; Bruce Springsteen haunts a few of the tunes and oddly, I could detect hints of The Teardrop Explodes and Dexy’s within the structure of much of the album. No bad thing.
This is some of the most memorable and downright catchy material that OR have ever released; On A Balcony is four minutes of sheer grin inducing goodtime. Sheff is known as a character based writer, but these songs have let him gleefully name check and revisit TV shows and video games and from his youth.
The album loses a little impetus with Stay Young which I can only assume is a funk parody. It’s not very good, to be honest.
However, amongst the gold standard of the rest of the album, it’s quickly forgotten and Black Nemo is classic Okkervil if there is such a thing.
The album is front and back loaded with some exceptionally good, immediate songs and despite the little mid set lull, The Silver Gymnasium is as good a place to start for Okkervil River novices and veterans alike.
All words by Joe Whyte. More writing by Joe on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.