The Silver Gymnasium is Will Sheff's best work with Okkervil River, and it contains his hardest truths. Going home is never quite going back.
The Silver Gymnasium
My favourite story about Okkervil River's music -- and there are so many of them, so please bear with me as I parse them out, one by one -- is actually about folk singer Tim Hardin. If you're like me, you learned about Hardin because of Okkervil River, in a lesson of the folk rock canon that frontman Will Sheff reversed. Hardin was the inspiration for Black Sheep Boy, the band's insidious masterpiece, and one of his songs, in particular, was the premise for the album's exponential loneliness. "Let me live in peace", one of Hardin's rebel pleas, is where the album begins, but it's a lie by the time the album ends, leaving its leading man pining like a monster pines for a princess, begging someone, anyone, to "come into the den". On Sheff's third album with his band, Hardin acts as a topic sentence that mutates. His song, which lends its title to Black Sheep Boy, is just the start.
That's one Hardin story, and maybe it's the best-told one. There's another song of his, though, that fits Sheff's music, and fits it better. That song is "It'll Never Happen Again", a disturbing, unclean break-up song from Tim Hardin 1. It's such an important song because it asks very disturbing and very earnest questions: "Why can't be the way I want you to be? / Why can't you see you've got to change to love me?" That's a line of thought that doesn't often get addressed in intimate, second-person love songs, maybe because it's not twee, nor kind; maybe because it posits a violent, coercive thought as if it's also beautiful. The strings swell, the piano blossoms, and Hardin says the kind of things a villain is expected to say.
But that's good; it's refreshing. I care so much about Hardin's songwriting because he treats beauty as a discrepancy, a wayside idea that sits next to the terrifying reality of loneliness. Fittingly, "It'll Never Happen Again" was covered by Okkervil River in a recent tribute to Hardin's legacy, and the story Sheff supplied with it was touching in this very Hardin-esque way. His history with it was apparently tarnished by listening to it with a girlfriend on the eve of their inevitable break-up: "I just put the song on because I liked it, but as we sat there and listened to Hardin's sad, perfect piano-driven version, it started to fill the room like this sad, salty fog. I immediately felt bad I'd made her listen to the song, and after it was over she said, 'Well, now I feel really, really depressed.'"
It's the kind of story that makes me love my favourite songwriter's music even more, because of how legitimising it is. Music can be emotionally satisfying, but its emotions can be real and transferrable too. Like Hardin, Sheff is able to provide facsimiles of personal tragedies. He tells the harsh truth and allows it to be beautiful. I feel like every Okkervil River album could be summed up by Hardin's sad, selfish questions; they apply to the ambiguous goodbyes of Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, the heartbreak-as-a-misdemeanour lyrics of Down the River of Golden Dreams, the clingy tragedy of Black Sheep Boy, the fastidious obsessions of The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, and maybe even the cryptic codas of life that I Am Very Far battles with. Sheff has said these albums aren't confessional, but they are certainly honest, and they all have one thing in common: they all wonder "why?".
Honesty, in music, is more than it's presumed to be. People often laugh at the idea of an album being "honest", because surely every album, in its intentions, is honest -- but honesty also needs excellence. It can be complex and bold, and narrating it can reflect strong journalism and compassion. The Silver Gymnasium, then? It's one of the most honest albums I've heard, but even better, it's told with expertise. Its distillation of a personal past is so well executed, its imagery so powerful, and its emotions so hard-won, that you can walk into the picture of Sheff's hometown Meriden. This isn't your past, but you're taken into someone else's childhood and told how it was: not great, not terrible, "super crappy", but hey, 'twas the season, and that counts for something. There are times when he's melodramatic, but this kid had dramas; they aren't exaggerated if they were felt by him. The Silver Gymnasium isn't nostalgic -- it's factual. It's real. It all happened and can't again. And that is magical: "We can never go back. We can only remember."
The Silver Gymnasium begins with "It Was My Season", a bright piano rock song that sets up Sheff's obsession with time, how it slips through our hands, and how it puts old dramas to pasture. It's about a guarded romance, one that's sacred in the way kids' romances are: it would be a scandal if it came out, Sheff's protagonist thinks, treating his parents like they're the mayor: "We'll meet on the weekends. Your dad won't be home." Like everything on The Silver Gymnasium, it doesn't last, time swallowing the love up. It lasted "a season", it was "only a feeling", and eventually it ended because the next passage of life began: "I'll go to college / you will stay home / And watch while I'm leaving / Oh Jason, I know." "It Was My Season" begins with a light and easy melody courtesy of Justin Sherburn, and he makes it sound blindly optimistic; hearing it for the first time strikes you in the best way, making you grin at the fact you're listening to it. As those backing-vocals fold into the song, though, and those strings swell like a stage curtain being drawn, it becomes heart-breaking. There's a sense this mess has already happened and can't be salvaged. Time may have passed, but wounds haven't healed.
Such is The Silver Gymnasium. It's as complex as Hardin's questions, joyful and hurting at the same time, rather than somewhere in between. Its imagery is how childhood feels: even when you're having fun, you're fucking terrified. "Down Down The Deep River" – which features a hammy '80s synth phrase running through its choruses, setting your preadolescence as a place where you only heard the same song over and over again, and never got bored of it – has a line that conveys that feeling perfectly. "We lie awake in our tents and I say, 'tell me about your uncle and his friend, 'cuz they seem like very bad men,'" Sheff sings, "'Well we wanna keep away from them.'" The line carries the kind of fear only a kid can feel, tucked into their safe hiding place in an already quaint hometown, but without holy adult truths to illuminate everything. It's said in a song that streams out the worst things Sheff felt: knocking his head, lying sick in bed, and wishing this feeling of sadness would go away. "Down" has a refrain which traverses each event, and each of the band's musical switch-ups: "It's not alright / It's not even close to alright." The way Sheff sings "Down" is like each repressed memory has come rushing back to him. His band pile on – with hand claps and ensnaring guitar walk-ups from Lauren Gurgiolo – like each is more vivid than the last.
This album remembers pain as if it must. Sheff signs off "Down" by begging you to "Say you still see it, say you remember," as if none of this should be forgotten. So he takes it all in: "Down" makes the childhood tale a sincere and epic poem, and he sings "Lido Pier Suicide Car", the apex of the album's intruding-on-something-personal vibe, with similar reverence. The song begins with just chords and a sharp ambient fog, but short guitar phrases filter in, making the song sound even barer, somehow, suggesting an empty scene by filling it in. "Lido Pier" is a piece of memory being passed around and then consoled, which makes its guest features feel even more important; departed Okkervil River members Zach Thomas and Jonathan Meiburg perform towards the song's outro, the former on mandolin and the latter providing his deep, enveloping voice to its second chorus. When Meiburg first comes in, it sounds curious, but it becomes a brotherly act, Meiburg singing with empathy for Sheff's words and leading them both into a gang-vocal chant. It's so appropriate for The Silver Gymnasium that there's someone, at this moment, placing themselves in Sheff's past.
Sheff expressed a wish to work "quickly and decisively" in the making of The Silver Gymnasium, and the result is an album that is obsessed with seasons ("White"), and also with the sounds of a certain time. If it sounds cheesier and more saccharine than Okkervil River material before it, it's because it has an obligation to. "Down" sounds like the soundtrack for the land that culture forgot, and then there's "Stay Young", a bass-tapping, laser-beaming synth-pop song. It's the album's boldest moment and maybe the band's loudest; Cully Symington's drumming sets a loose backdrop for a piece of celebratory theatre, accompanied with saxophone and harmonica, meshed into one song with all the wish-fulfillment of your first childhood band: because, you know, why not? "Stay Young" is a defiant piece of music, which makes it matter – its silliness is based on something quite serious, rewriting "hateful people judging and hand-wringing" as if they're video game monsters to be zapped.
The Silver Gymnasium ends with two of the best Okkervil River songs ever. "All The Time Every Day" is a freewheeling, arguably boozy pub rock song, with doo-wop inspired piano underscoring it; more importantly, Sheff's lyrics are like a warm blanket, extending comfort to anyone who thinks, quite commonly, that they're all alone in whatever they're going through. It lays any secret on the table – "Do you try to make it right by thinking of someone else feels it, it's real, and won't go away?", Sheff asks – and makes them sound like they're practiced by everyone. At first, they're heady emotional problems, but he knows how to simplify them: "When you could do so much, you do... fuck all?". The song uses this information to ascend, to share in the moment like we've shared with Sheff's visit home: "Were you born yesterday / are you dumb? Are you insane? / Don't be ashamed! / I'm the same." To put this song on The Silver Gymnasium feels fitting; it's the kind of moment that could relieve the worries of a child, that could help a character like Sheff's throw away whatever burden they thought they had. Following it is "Black Nemo", a quietly erupting closer of subliminal drumming, metallic guitar strums and sparsely-laid piano flourishes. It's the opposite of "It Was My Season", in a way; it sounds like it was made in the fall rather than spring, beginning with an innate sadness, but realising, by the time it's done, that feeling this way is only natural. Maybe it's even a good thing.
The contradictions of The Silver Gymnasium are tough to explain, and I can't get even close to all of them here. But there's a story of Sheff's that explains his picture of Meriden well, told in an interview with Dangerous Minds: "During the making of I Am Very Far I drove up very briefly and didn't tell anyone I was coming or say hi to anyone. I just kind of lingered around the town like a weird creep." This is the image that comes to mind when I listen to The Silver Gymnasium now; for all the excitement at being home, and all the anthemic sense of purpose, there's an already defeated line like "we can never go back." Or there's "Oh, I know," the secret missive of the album which Sheff sings on about four different occasions as if he's patting the young, freckled version of himself on the back.
When I hear this album I can totally understand Sheff's choice to make this secret visit home, where he sits on the edge of town, lounging on a car that so isn't a cutlass cruiser, wondering why his town is so ingrained in who he is. When it comes down to it, The Silver Gymnasium is about not quite knowing how you felt. It's the past as a blur, with the glorious moments – and the painful ones – extenuated. And that is so Hardin. It is so Sheff. The freeway flasher at the end of "Black Nemo" personifies his hometown, as special to him a memory as it is fleeting: "I know you think you miss him, I know you think you knew him / but you were just passing through him, light as air." Going home is never quite going back.