Okkervil River is like a baby deer. It’s captivating and enjoyable, even if you don’t particularly like deer. Even if you know one day they’ll chew up your tomato garden or wreck your car, you still just want to hug them, or hug someone, or get drunk alone. But now I’ve lost the analogy. The Silver Gymnasium was recorded in Will Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire (which even sounds like the name of a hometown), so it’s understandably nostalgic. Not only nostalgic for Sheff’s childhood, but for Okkervil River’s past. This is 2002’s Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See played back through blurred hindsight.
This is the band’s first release for ATO, and it’s a concept album, but only like how 2005’s Black Sheep Boy was a “concept” album. The concept is basically a walk down memory lane, literally and figuratively (the physical album comes with a map of Meriden with locations paired to song titles). In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Situationists used the term dérive to describe the act of walking through an area not navigated by any road map, but navigated by the magnetism and repulsion of certain areas. You move in the direction your subconscious tells you to move in order to create an entirely “new” experience. If The Silver Gymnasium is the act of creating a new experience by subconscious movement, then Sheff is the flâneur, which is another French word not related to Situationism, but I’m using it anyway because it’s literary and Will Sheff is a literary kind of guy. The flâneur is the walker, and usually the narrator. Whereas on previous albums Sheff was content to be some kind of outside observer and storyteller, The Silver Gymnasium has Sheff getting increasingly personal, though it sometimes seems as if he has no more personal secrets left to reveal. The new experience is stunted by the fact that everything really just sounds like a memory.
Opening track It Was My Season is an instant reminder that yes, this is definitely an Okkervil River album. When Sheff pleads, “If you stop our thing, you’ll stop my heart,” all of the feelings you’ve ever felt re: this band will come surging to the forefront of your mind. On A Balcony toys more with instrumentation, like on Black Sheep Boy where Sheff used walls of sound to break up his streams of mangled sorrow. Pink-Slips is as close as the band ever gets to lo-fi, whereas White sounds like the work of an ecstatic Morrissey, and All The Time Every Day has Sheff bellowing like that drunk guy at karaoke who captivates the audience without even trying.
In their dérive, Sheff and crew have traveled from a crushing pit of despair in the early Aughts to a cheerful recollection of that pit of despair more than ten years later. And maybe at its end, you’ll think The Silver Gymnasium is more meaningful than it actually is, as is so often the case with memories.