“This wish just to go back…when I know I wasn’t even happy! Show me my best memory – it’s probably super crappy.”
“Nostalgia – a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Thanks, Oxford. But we could have clarified that as well by just asking Will Sheff, the head of Austin’s finest folkrock-formation OKKERVIL RIVER. Maybe he would have answered by just putting on the 8th record of his band, called The Silver Gymnasium. A bunch of songs in which he devoted every single note and line to the small town of Meriden, New Hampshire where Sheff grew up in the 80s. An huge project indeed, but by carrying out a concept like this once more, OKKERVIL RIVER prove to be one of the most literate and ambitious songwriters in their field. And that’s not necessiraly something one could have expected after the slightly over-produced and bloodless predecessor I Am Very Far. A record of which Sheff himself now says, that it’s been a rather “bristling, pushing-people-away kind of record”. With these new songs, he consciously tried to let people in; expanding his usually fictional-character-based songwriting in favor of a deeply personal but nonetheless clever generalizing record about the elusiveness of memory.
A whole record about youth, childhood, and therefore highly subjective experiences is definitely a hard thing to write. Under the given circumstances, one could easily slip into a general nostalgic glorification. Which is why only the best songwriters are able to make those strings, that tie us to our past, resonate the right way. What we’ve got here is a mysterious adventure, relocating us not only to a specific time and place in the youth/childhood of Will Sheff, but metaphorically spoken also deeply into our own memories. And of course, this isn’t always a rosy trip back to safety and happiness – there are places full of danger, there’s narrow-minded density, there’s bullying, there’s magic and wonder in the crappiest things, and of course: 80s retromania galore! “Don’t let them twist you, you have this song, you can take it with you. [..] Did the silence drop? Did your Walkman stop?” we hear Sheff yelling in one moment and continuing with his 80s-references in several others: “tell me about the greatest show, or the greatest movie you know/ or the greatest song that you taped off the radio/play it again and again. (It cuts off at the ending, though.)”.
Musically, The Silver Gymnasium might be one of the richest experiences in the already impressive catalogue of OKKERVIL RIVER. Producer JOHN AGNELLO, who recently also cast his magic spells onto KURT VILE‘s excellent “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, helped the band in a really noticeable way to realize their vision. There’s a lot of 80s SPRINGSTEEN-vibe lingering through songs like Down Down The Deep River or On A Balcony – not that Sheff even tries to compete with the voice of the Boss. His singing remains to be deeply stuck in the fragile, crumbling enthusiasm of a man who’s sensitivity is not afraid of the dark, the madness, the anger. Yet the songs themselves: they could easily work out on bigger stages than the ones OKKERVIL RIVER used to play. With their new label ATO backing them, that’s maybe exactly what they are heading for. At least, with The Silver Gymnasium they successfully merged their outsider art with lots of hooks and melody. But be careful: just like Meriden, New Hampshire, there is no use to just pass through this record; you’d have to take a closer look around and get completely lost in it, in order to embrace the class of this uplifting, sepia-toned beauty.