Will Sheff knows how to tell a story. The Okkervil River band leader has written thoughtful, in-depth, well-rounded and compelling tunes along with a rotating cast of band members for 15 years now. Okkervil River songs are often times character driven, with Sheff seamlessly portraying individuals and viewpoints different than those you’d expect from your typical male rock musician. While in front of the mic, he’s stepped behind the diverse, yet universally intriguing roles of a content drug dealer (“No Key, No Plan”), the young murderer of a teenage girl (“Westfall”), famed porn star Shannon Wilsey (“Starry Stairs”), and the album-spanning troubles of 60’s folk musician Tim Hardin (Black Sheep Boy). Throughout all the varying parts played, Sheff finds a way to portray each character with his or her own unique point of view, frankly revealing each one’s inner thoughts and distinct personal understanding.
Now on Okkervil River’s seventh studio album, The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff delves directly into the scenes and characters of his own life’s familiarity– his childhood of growing up in the small town for Meriden, New Hampshire. It’s Sheff’s most obviously personal effort yet, but he finds a way of unveiling it in a highly inventive way. The Silver Gymnasium is accompanied by a child-minded map of Meriden, drawn by longtime Okkervil River album artist, William Schaff. NPR took the map one step further and turned it into an interactive app, complete with Sheff’s descriptions of memorable landmarks, as well as family photos from Sheff’s childhood days in Meriden. To further enhance the mid-eighties era experience, there is even an 8-bit Silver Gymnasium video game that fans can play online. Yes, The Silver Gymnasium is a different album taking a fresh approach, but it’s undeniably layered with Okkervil River familiarity; the band’s often acclaimed storytelling, detail and craftsmanship are as much a part of The Silver Gymnasium as any of their previous releases.
The piano-driven “It Was My Season” begins the album on a catchy and rather upbeat note. The track features a delicately beautiful bridge just before Sheff picks the lines back up, tenderly imprinting signs of the era, “I won’t say I’m sorry, and how would they know? Below the Atari, I could feel your heart was just going.”
“Down Down The Deep River” vibrantly channels anthem-like vibes, very much in the vein of uptempo rock classics, such as Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” Lyrically, Sheff fires off poignantly, while still encompassing the fragile earnestness of a child (“Tell me I’m always going to be your best friend. You said it one time- why don’t you say it again?”). Rousing sing-along “All The Time Everyday” and 80’s tempo-fused “Stay Young” are other lively standouts, building off of repeating title shouts and digital-tinted dance beats, respectively. “White” bustles along attractively as well, showcasing Sheff’s familiar, commanding delivery of singing/storytelling .
Sheff revealed that most of the relationships discussed on The Silver Gymnasium are of friendship, instead of those based on romantic feelings and emotions. It’s fitting to the album’s childhood themes and viewpoints, but it also creates a noticeable difference between The Silver Gymnasium and other Okkervil River albums. “Lady Liberty,” “A Stone,” “It Ends With A Fall,” “Song Of Our So-Called Friend”— Sheff is a master on the heart-wrenching relationship front. Some fans will miss the touching break-up retellings on the new album, but The Silver Gymnasium still has its on point tender moments, including the soft ballad beginning to “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” prior to the track’s grand scale finish.
Over the band’s 15 years, Okkervil River has managed to never tell the same story twice, and The Silver Gymnasium is no exception. Sheff’s detailed and encompassing trip down memory lane results in a collection of songs that’s rich, pleasant and refreshing. Flashes of childhood can seem so foggy and distant at times, for Sheff to pull this sort of project off, and as colorfully as he does, is admirable, and altogether a fascinating listen.