On album seven, Will Sheff maps out his teenage years – but the concept sometimes overwhelms the passion
The official line is that Okkervil River’s last record, 2011’s ‘I Am Very Far’, was their first non-concept album in eight years. Its follow-up and the band’s seventh, ‘The Silver Gymnasium’, is the swashbuckling Texans’ first for major American alternative ATO Records after spending most of their career to date on Jagjaguwar – an evident attempt to do bigger business. While it’s billed as a concept record, for Okkervil lynchpin Will Sheff that really just means turning his novelist’s eye to a different aspect of his life. This time, it’s his teenage years in Meriden, New Hampshire, and the attendant stories of first loves, being driven mad by summer’s endless humid sprawl, and starting to worry about the point of it all.
Perhaps the hand-drawn map of Sheff’s young life that comes with the record fulfils the ‘concept’ part. It’s a lovely touch, but his obsessively accurate memory is a better orientation device than any compass. “Below the Atari, I could feel your heart, just going“, he recalls nervously over the swaggering piano of ‘It Was My Season’; “Tell me about… the greatest song that you taped from the radio, play it again and again/It cuts off at the end, though“, goes ‘Down Down The Deep River’, whose period-perfect ‘Dancing In The Dark’ sparkle comes courtesy of producer John Agnello (Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, as well as Springsteen), who helps Okkervil navigate synthy new territory. Sheff has that wonderful knack for making you feel a familiar sensation anew, but he delivers his lyrics at a ferocious, impassioned gallop, which lessens the impact.
It quickly transpires that ‘The Silver Gymnasium’ uses the veil of youth to talk about growing old; Sheff’s frenzied vocal canter soon gives way to maniacal panic at the distance between himself as a young man and a middle-aged one. On ‘Pink-Slips’, he lets slip that he’s well aware of the futility of nostalgia: “Show me my best memory, it’s probably super crappy“. Thus ensues an existential crisis with a dual personality. The taut, stylish ‘Stay Young’ urges kids to stay reckless because “one day it’s all gone and you’re all done“, but on the bombastic sway of ‘All The Time Every Day’, Sheff poses questions seemingly stolen from a personality test in a Charlie Kaufman film. “Do you stop and stare, struck dumb, hands shaking, washed by this constant panicked wishing for what’s lost?” Well, not before you told me “winter’s here and it’s too cold to drown“.
But Sheff’s sense of hopelessness remains shrouded beneath the bombast, hard to winkle out. There’s a strange disconnect here, one that might be ironed out by facing the past head-on rather than treating it as a concept.