Album Review: Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

[ATO Records; 2013]

More or less exactly ten years ago Okkervil River put out their second (and arguably best) album Down The River of Golden Dreams. Their seventh full length, The Silver Gymnasium, features a song entitled “Down Down The Deep River.” It may be an overly simplistic way of looking at it, but comparing these two titles can tell you a decent amount about how the band has changed in the past decade. Whereas they used to be more romantic and wandering in their approach, their sound is now much more direct and to-the-point.

To be sure, Will Sheff is still a fantastic lyricist and his words are still one of Okkervil River’s most deadly weapons. But, whereas on Down The River of Golden Dreams his lyrics were more prosaic and hooks were hard to come by, The Silver Gymnasium is undoubtedly their most poppy to date, with every song circling back round for a killer chorus after each verse. And the band is guiding the way with bright and colourful tunes; Cully Symington’s drums are the best Okkervil River have ever had, stomping, shuffling or sauntering through songs; synths embellish the picture; organs burble and wheeze; guitars both warmly buzz and frenetically crackle; the piano adorns the outskirts; and there are show-stealing horns emphatically punching their way into the picture on several songs. Another way that Sheff has changed in the last ten years is the vast improvement in his singing, which he needs to do to keep up with the musical side of the band on The Silver Gymnasium. He does it with aplomb, from the howls of “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” to the desperate roller-coaster ride of “Down Down The Deep River,” to the magnificent “On A Balcony,” where he sings as strongly and passionately if he’s high up in the titular vantage point.

And he has plenty to be passionate about; The Silver Gymnasium is a concept album of sorts about Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, remembered from the glory days of his childhood. There are plenty of lyrics to delve into that are tinged with sweet nostalgia of the 80s. Fans might be disappointed that there aren’t really any slow or stripped down songs here (the first half of “Lido Pier Suicide Car” aside), but that could have to do with these songs being much more about friendship than romantic love or death as their previous ballads have been. This youthful energy spurs on the songs and brings out their utter joyfulness across the board and as such the album never loses momentum and is never left wanting for something more melodramatic. Not that drama is lacking on The Silver Gymnasium; the narrative of “Pink-Slips” keeps looping back to those nominal payments each time with growing theatricality expertly engineered by Sheff; the lyrics of “Down Down The Deep River” are laden with teenage tragedy; in the summer-to-winter lifecycle of “White” Sheff concludes “I’m nearly whited-out, snowblind, like it’s no business of mine if life doesn’t want me around” – and these are just a few examples.

The Silver Gymnasium isn’t so much a new sound for Okkervil River as it is just a new attitude. We already knew that they could write and play grand and anthemic songs, but this album finds them going all-out in swashbuckling revelry for the most part, and it suits them better than anyone might have expected. They seem to have found new strengths in their happiness, and long may it continue for them.