Okkervil River’s seventh release is a big, sloppy-hearted trip back in time, an endearing pop rock set dedicated to Will Sheff’s misbegotten youth in Meriden, New Hampshire. The band marshals just about every 80s pop trick in the book — Hey! Hey! Hey! — to reclaim the dangerous idealism and self-destructive egotism that have since become the clichéd hallmarks of the era. What saves the album from its own sappiness, though, is that it seems less about the high school hallway shitstorms of the 1980s than the aftermath of those experiences on adulthood. Song after song ponders the impact of youthful pop idealism on lives that could never possibly sustain such promises into the future. Drug overdoses and suicides abound; the rest are left to riff drunkenly on old girlfriends and VHS tapes. But this longing is everywhere richly inflected by the era towards which it leans. The Silver Gymnasium documents nostalgia for a period that was itself nostalgic for an impossible future. As a whole, it splits the difference between an impossible past and a lost future, churning up a rich emotional froth that — like the best of 80s pop itself — seems by turns angry, giddy, and seriously tragic.
Poke a hole in the can, crack it open, let’s shotgun. I first saw Okkervil River perform in a rented storage unit off 17th Street in Bloomington, Indiana, probably around 2002. It must’ve been a Jagjaguwar thing. There were no more than 25 people in the audience, and Sheff did his best to hide behind his bangs. The band was charmingly sheepish — they had something to say, but not a lot of nerve to say it — but, whatever, most people were there for the keg behind the dresser. Five years later, they returned, riding high on the heady rock fumes of The Stage Names. They now had a stage, a sound, and a presence. Sheff commanded the stage like a newborn rock god — hips out, lips pouting, twirling his mic like Mick. The girls shrieked (literally). At the time, it looked like he’d just made a deal with Robert Johnson’s devil or he’d discovered some magic rock & roll cocktail — one part beat existentialism, one part Springsteen street rock, some punkish angst, a dash of romantic poetry. “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man,” Sheff demanded, “unless it’s fictions, unless it’s sweat, or it’s songs?” Fuck, it was all rhetorical. The song’s question had already been answered by its own spiky riff, its restless drums, Sheff’s desperate yelps. Disease and cure — basic rock pharmaceuticals. They had nailed it.
But, as they say, you can’t hold the hand of a rock & roll man, and this was just one stop in the group’s restless career. The Silver Gymnasium suggests that maybe we had all missed the mark concerning Sheff’s muse, that his musical DNA is rooted not so much in the decadent art rock of 70s, but in the spiky pop dreams of 80s bands like Talking Heads, The Human League, Wang Chung, Simple Minds, Men at Work, and (sure, why not?) WHAM! In an interview with The Believer a few years back, Sheff called pop music a “touchingly idiotic, thorough, complete dedication to the dumbest ideas that there are.” “As people,” he claims, “we’re dumb, stumbling idiots — and rock and roll is one of the only art forms that fully cops to that and revels in it.” As a cultural detention hall, the 1980s inspired a pop sound that was by turns blatantly angry and blindly idealist, militant and goofy. Its synth-y minimalism could signal both oppressive restraint and childish play. The Silver Gymnasium seems to capture all of this and more, realizing in hindsight that you can’t have one without the other. Sheff knows the damage wrought by the era’s simple-minded pop promises, and yet he seems to accept it all over again. As he sings on “Pink-Slips,” “This wish just to go back… when I know I wasn’t even happy!/ Show me my best memory — it’s probably super crappy.” And yet he does go back, 11 times in a row, drinking himself silly off of these bad dreams.
The first few tracks come at you with all the scrappy self-possession of a local bar band with Top 40 dreams. These tunes just happen to be written by one of the finest songwriters of his generation. The first, “It Was My Season,” comes on as a simple piano ballad, an obvious breakup song — some making out, a little Atari, some sneaking out, angry parents, heading off to college. But, for all its quaintness, this is a dangerous season, a season of obsessions and breakdowns, overblown dreams and demands, and this breakup, like all adolescent breakups, carries a shitload of weight. “Tell me a reason to break things off, to stop the bleeding, when it’s my season?” Sheff croons, sounding as no one so much as Elvis Costello on Brutal Youth. The song culminates with a juxtaposition of two melodies that is also a juxtaposition of two eras, two emotions; while a younger Sheff urges his girlfriend to stick with a destructive love, the older Sheff tries to convince himself to stop nursing old wounds. The second track, “On a Balcony,” is a bright, blustery rocker about lost days spent feeling high and invincible; it’s dedicated to a rebel gal named “Misty,” and, with its bright chimes and blustery chord changes, it comes across as a charged facsimile of mid-era Springsteen pop bombast. The next, “Down Down the Deep River,” muses on a wider set of fears and hopes. Death and suicide lurk everywhere in this suburban landscape, but nothing’s more dangerous than what they tell kids about the future: “And maybe they told you about the summer sky/ And maybe they said there’s a great gold spirit in the summer sky, and all your friends — all your best, best friends — are going to gather around your bed at night/ Well, that doesn’t make it all right, because it’s still so far from all right.” There’s some distraction here in the form of long phone calls, Top 40 radio, and shared mixtapes, but the most satisfying relief comes from a hesitant existential mantra, one voiced by the narrator’s father, but somehow reflective of the era at large: “Though it’s not all right, it’s so far from all right, we’ll make it into a choice somehow/ I don’t know/ But you’ll have a choice somehow.”
The Silver Gymnasium is actually split between two different period styles; while the first half mostly cops from the 80s pop of Costello, Springsteen, and maybe Jackson Browne, the second half lays on the synths for a set of uneven, but no less interesting New Wave experiments. “Where the Spirit Lies” offers up an earnest arena-sized chorus, but the song as a whole lacks some of the era’s off-beat bite. “White,” too, reaches for an anthemic high with its martial rhythm section, clanging chords, and sing-a-long refrains, but Sheff delivers his vocals a little too low and loses a bit by the way of presence. I still think these tracks are pretty great, but the next, “Stay Young,” knocks it all out of the park. Perhaps the best track on the album, “Stay Young” could easily pass as the title song of some lost John Hughes film, not least because its melody follows the basic intervals of “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Shedding complex biography for pop sloganeering, Sheff here opens with a series of rebellious charges over a fat synth line — “Stay young/ Stay strong/ Don’t ‘get on with it’/ Because it’s gone, way gone one day/ It’s all gone and you’re all done.” The band then kicks in with what once (in 1984) passed for a funky rhythm section, joining Sheff in a series of smug shout-outs about “hurters” and “haters” and then “all the cracked cassette tape thrillers” and “all the hand inside the tillers” and “the hundred-dollar-billers.” It’s a big fat stooped song, with a punchy horn section, a gratuitous harmonica solo, and senselessly rousing cries of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” You could almost see Anthony Michael Hall geeking out in the background, Principal Vernon scowling behind him.
As part of the promotional campaign for The Silver Gymnasium, Will Sheff has been playing his old Meriden haunts — the original high school gym, the school cafeteria, a rec center, some local bars. He’s hooked up for a series of open mic performances with Aaron Johnson — a longtime collaborator, but here noted as one of his old high school bandmates. He’s commissioned a childlike map of old Meriden and designed an 8-bit videogame with a chiptune version of the album as a soundtrack (your avatar — a boxy, bookish teenage Sheff — pokes around the streets of Meriden looking for his sister). Musical nostalgia sure takes many forms these days — from the pomo-inflected returns of Destroyer’s Kaputt and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to the more avant-garde minded work of, say, Matana Roberts or The Caretaker. Sheff’s nostalgia probably seems more conventional than most, but he puts it to good use — tearing himself up over and over again, nursing that jagged homeward pain for its own impossible promise. “All the Time Every Day,” the penultimate track on The Silver Gymnasium, takes the form of a mock questionnaire. Sheff here queries his self-destructive tendencies, spawned no doubt by his troubled Meriden adolescence. The song is brilliantly structured, each damning question parried by a big, sloppy chorus, a glorious affirmation of his own heart-shredding nostalgia:
Q: Do you stop and stare, struck dumb, hands shaking, washed by this constant panicked wishing for what’s lost? As you’re standing on some curb, waiting to cross, would you say feel like some weak leaf, wind-turned and tossed?
A: All the time. Everyday. Everyday, all the time. All the time. Everyday, everyday.
Q: As the streets sail by the seats inside your car, does each face outside collide against your heart? As you watch them blaze, or fade into the dark, do you want to scream that you’re so pleased with who they are?
A: Everyday, all the time. All the time, everyday. Everyday. All the time. Everyday.
Whether exploring a lost little town or his own lost soul, Will Sheff proves an excellent tour guide. He’ll let you see the dangerous parts, but he’ll also keep you safe from harm. Is it dangerous to go back? Yes, everyday. Is it dangerous to listen to songs like this? Yes, of course. Everyday. Should you get yourself a copy of The Silver Gymnasium? Yes, right away.