Okay Fine, I’ll Sing About My Youth: Okkervil River Tries To Be New Hampshire’s Springsteen
There has always been something distinctively off-kilter about Okkervil River. Singer and songwriter Will Sheff has a gift for the unexpected lyric, the word here and there that you would not expect. His voice, strong and serviceable, also tends towards the understated. He does not hit you over the head with emotionalism or demand you feel what he expects. In this way Sheff is like a great short-story writer. He can draw you into a song without you even noticing, wrap you up in his gauzy and nostalgic visions, and then somewhere in the middle you realize you are so invested you never want the story or the song to end, because you fear the world will look just a little different when you return to it.
Which is what makes The Silver Gymnasium, the band’s seventh full-length album, so difficult to like. Oh it’s a beautiful piece of work, poppy and accessible and stripped of that I-don’t-give-a-shit indie cred of earlier albums. It even hit number seven on the Billboard Top 200 chart recently, bettering by twenty-five spots the band’s previous highest-charting record, 2011’s I Am Very Far. It’s a fine museum piece, a snapshot of growing up in the 1980s in a small town, but that warm nostalgia is also what keeps the album at a distance. Which, after the loopy tragicomic stories of 2007’s The Stage Names and 2008’s The Stand Ins and the driving, almost angry darkness of the aforementioned I Am Very Far, feels like a step backwards for Okkervil River.
Sheff based the album on his childhood in Meriden, N.H., a town of fewer than five hundred people. So deep was his immersion in the concept that he also commissioned a detailed map of Meriden to ship with the record, as well as an online 8-bit video game. For the 80s kid, the songs have requisite mentions of walkmen and Ataris. The catchiest, most slickly produced track, “Down Down the Deep River,” has a clean synthesizer line and a sound that an NPR critic compared to mid-80s Springsteen (admittedly this is the one song from the album I feel compelled to play over and over).
All of this might leave the expectation that The Silver Gymnasium is chock full of a nostalgia powerful to the point of smothering. But it is in fact muted, the songs of a writer who gives the impression he places a great deal of importance on nostalgia’s place in memory, but has moved far enough beyond his past that accessing it is an exercise rather than an emotional imperative.
You can watch the video for the album’s first single, “It Was My Sea,” below.
The Silver Gymnasium is out now.