Okkervil River Record Review
Okkervil RiverThe Silver Gymnasium (ATO)
Will Sheff strikes hardest when he's strafing the cultural subconscious, exhuming within his dense, hyper-literate narratives the tenuous traumas and defining details of his characters that sync to larger, and deeper social truths. He's also one of the few songwriters who works better behind a theme, his allusion-laden lyrics and arrangements layering best upon a concept. Okkervil River's seventh LP and ATO debut arrives as the Austin sextet's most directly conceptual, not only for the specificity of its setting (small town Meriden, New Hampshire, 1986), but also its particularly personal perspective of Sheff at age 10. His triumph lies in capturing the universal angst of that lost adolescent innocence, as the album grows darker from the initial bright of piano opener "It Was My Season" and Springsteen-styled restlessness of "On a Balcony" and "Down Down the Deep River" to the more conflicted pop references of the Cure ("Where the Spirit Left Us") and Talking Heads ("Stay Young") on the LP's backside. Like Arcade Fire's Funeral and The Suburbs, there's a thrashing catharsis in childhood emotions, but Sheff balances raw moments with a more mature filter. The abounding dangers and their full meanings are still vague and unknown in "Pink-Slips" and "Lido Pier Suicide Car," but nonetheless amass in the underlying tension of awakening, of forces shaping future struggles. And despite the heaviness of the connecting threads, the songs sing effectively, while demanding intense listens to unravel Will Sheff.