“The Silver Gymnasium,” Okkervil River’s brand new full-length studio album on ATO Records, is not your quintessential rock album, but rather an epic autobiographical collection of original songs. Lovingly crafted and warmly nostalgic, this is an album whose inspired elements transport one back in time through the telling of wholly personal experiences and observations, in some parts vague, and in others quite specific. Meriden, New Hampshire is the setting, and the time is the mid ‘80s. And that is why Will Sheff—composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist— has identified the project as A Pageant of New England, which is declared verbatim on the back of the album’s case, and which, despite the fact that it is all music and no spectacle (which a pageant demands by definition), seems a proper enough designation. In fact, apart from a small handful of albums released throughout the last two decades-- Say Anything’s “…Is a Real Boy,” for instance--“The Silver Gymnasium” could have easily been a rock opera. As it stands, though, the songs fill one’s head with the corresponding imagery, making this an album that is quite enough as it is, indeed more than enough, and purely for its musical role.
Sheff and company really gave it their all to revisit the ‘80s in both composition and execution. More than anything else it is the synthesizer accompaniment that lends the songs that unmistakably ‘80s feel. Other areas of instrumentation do, as well, and the vocal deliveries. And Sheff knew exactly what he was doing when he brought producer John Angello on board, since Angello was involved with such popular ‘80s artists as Cyndi Lauper and John Mellancamp; an old-fashioned producer to produce an old-fashioned-sounding record. And in that respect they succeeded. Both musically and vocally, “The Silver Gymnasium” is decidedly akin to a message in a bottle floating on a river of time, backwards, to a chapter in Sheff’s young life, to all of the meaningful encounters and occurrences that have made him the man and the artist he is today.
Not since “A Fire to Make Preparations” by The Boy Bathing, or perhaps the “Michigan” and “Illinois” albums by Sufjan Stevens, have I happened upon such an album. Now Okkervil River’s “The Silver Gymnasium” can be added to that list. To be sure, the material on “The Silver Gymnasium” isn’t the kind that a band assiduously labors over in the studio, shaping and reshaping the songs as though made from so many malleable elements, thinking and rethinking the instrumentation, and writing and rewriting the lyrics. It is a life record, after all, and not remarkably complex. It is an album whose artistic quality cannot be ignored, but it also a fun record to be enjoyed. Above all, it is a collection of songs that are equivalent to a long stroll down memory lane.
The lyrical content in the eleven songs on “The Silver Gymnasium,” accompanied as they are by lofty yet utterly unaffected musical compositions which perfectly capture the intended nuance and sentimentality of each, were clearly penned not just with vivid remembrances long held in the mind, but also those housed within the heart and soul. Some of the songs are lively, some are rather sober, and many are remarkably beautiful in the small moments sprinkled throughout, and the vocals are nothing less than complementary to the compositions with which they move along. In addition, the songs are all marked by a unique perspective and mode of conveyance, and are evocative of youth in small town America. And Okkervil River’s Will Sheff has endeavored to tell a coming of age story, or rather he has endeavored to sing it over an ever-changing backdrop of music…his own story…the particulars fondly and expressively brought back from the years to land in the present. Sheff, after all, is the one whose early days they chronicle, much like what one might find on the pages of a long lost personal journal finally found in an old dusty chest of drawers; its entries fashioned into engagingly fun yet fiercely poignant songs of innocence and wonder, of the people and places and things that at one time meant the world to him, and then shared with whomever come who may, to whomever might listen. And all of this was accomplished by means of a most effective combination of rousing rock arrangements and organic folk moments and plugged-in‘80s pop material, over which there flows a steady stream of absorbing lyrics, delivered by way of Sheff’s distinctive and equally captivating vocals.
Okkervil River are obviously aware of the importance of the visual aspect of releasing a physical album, and for "The Silver Gymnasium" the artwork was done by William Shaff, who has provided art for most of the band's albums to date. Both the cover art and the fold-out map art enclosed within the album's sleeve are utterly brilliant.
While most of the songs on “The Silver Gymnasium” can be equally appreciated, there are a few that stand out. It Was My Season, Lido Pier Suicide Car, Where the Spirit Left Us, White, and All the Time Every Day—all of these are highlight tracks on the album. But, of course, one will have to listen to the album and decide for oneself which songs are one’s favorites.