Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium | Album Review | By Volume

...was fond of your writing, it allowed me to see into you... The Hotelier - Discomfort Revisited

Okkervil River

The Silver Gymnasium

The figure on The Silver Gymnasium’s cover is, quite literally, burdened by ‘home’.

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Author: on September 6, 2013
September 3, 2013

The Silver Gymnasium tiptoes backwards through time, but towards the present day, squinting as the events of yesterday become those of last week, as those of last week drift to years ago. Ignore for a moment the lie that breaks piano-driven lead single “It Was My Season” in two – “I hardly think about it now”. More tellingly, it took time for the last line of that song to hook into the narrative trailed before it. “Oh, Jason, I know,” was the sigh I kept returning to for its distracted delivery – but its importance didn’t click, not for a while. Such is the state that The Silver Gymnasium bubbles in, Will Sheff’s finest lyrical details painting an experience that’s not so much vivid as tangible.

But to look back now on the lyric that sends a shiver through that opening song, there’s nothing about The Silver Gymnasium that “hardly think[s] about it now”. That forgetful and knowingly blunt excuse cuts hard, throwing into light the relationship of stories with the emotions that are brought to life by telling them. It’s the first of myriad arresting musings on the past and its weight, incisive but intelligent shards which threaten every inch of Okkervil River’s skin on this album. That skin feels at times thick – as “White” draws to a close amid stomping drums and Sheff’s oddly unburdened assertion that “Winter’s here and it’s too cold to drown” – but the feeling when that resistance gives, to the tune of, “No business of mine, if life don’t want me around,” is one which feels truly heavy. It’s that way because these aren’t songs built to be tragic; they’re autobiographical walks through a place and time that really existed, and the poignant lines are just the wind blowing across them.

Except, that is, “Down Down The Deep River”, with its open-mouthed refrain:”It’s not alright. It’s not even close to alright.” The Silver Gymnasium is rooted in Sheff’s hometown Meriden, NH, circa 1986, and “Down The Deep River” is the song which feels most embedded in that town’s mythology, both in imagery and in wistful tone. Sheff works his way through a tragedy like only somebody with every intricacy and every resolved emotion can, remembering, accusing, stepping toward and away from the place he’s constructed anew with every step he takes back through the story. Adorned by 80s pop synths to crystallize the texture – yet somehow remaining earthy – “Down The Deep River” is the microcosm of The Silver Gymnasium. Despite being told from a vantage point of travelled pain, it never feels anachronistic, and nor does it come off as distanced.

That way, Okkervil River live a childhood again, but this time with the learned lessons in mind but not to hand, and a fine lens on every detail that might have gotten missed first time. “All The Time Every Day” is not revisionism of messy lines through rose-tinted glasses; it swings through flaws and bittersweet horns to lines like, “Do you fall so short of all that’s in your heart?” and collapsing to ask, “And when you could do so much, you do.. fuck all?” These are mistakes made once and made all over again. The album feels to deteriorate as it runs, shedding “It Was My Season”‘s elegance to finally throw its seat back and sigh with “Black Nemo”, the tender closer which charts the dissolving of many things with stoic calm. From “I hardly think about it now,” it’s a long way down the road in December’s Meriden, and an awful lot of remembering. The memories collapse with the music, leaving Sheff bewildered: “I know you think you knew him”. There’s not a lens in this world that isn’t broken.

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  • Adam Knott

    It’s not 2000 words long, but it’s something =)


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