Despite Okkervil River’s Will Sheff best intention, New Hampshire is not New Jersey, and the adolescent angst of white, upper-middle class upbringing does little to threaten Springsteen’s blue collar dread of becoming another trapped soul in the industrial machine.
With The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff steers his band down a nostalgic path, peppering their sound with an equally nostalgic arrangement that becomes more Beaver Brown Band than E Street when the whole thing wraps up.
Yes, Okkervil River’s seventh album is their first disappointing one. It’s a big statement about his childhood in the small New Hampshire village of Meriden, a town of nothing more than 300 residents and a boarding school where his parents taught.
Kimball Union Academy is a private institution where parents can fork over around $50,000 a year for the privilege of sending their kids to a remote New Hampshire village. And while I’m very familiar with the pain and pleasures of small town living, I am also acutely aware how time has the tendency to magnify both of them.
For Sheff, he offers very little in the way of The Silver Gymnasium to demonstrate how Meriden is a worthy enough environment to warrant 49 minutes of its listener’s attention. For all of New Hampshire’s well documented physical beauty, Sheff focuses his attention on the obvious relics that were shared by anyone growing up in the 80’s. We get the prerequisite mentions of Walkmans and Atari consoles, but barely a compelling reason of why this, of all topics, deserves to be the inspiration for another Okkervil River concept album. He even admits so much on “Pink Slips,” “This wish just to go back/When I know I wasn’t ever ever happy/Show me my best memory/It’s probably super crappy.”
Even with this admission, Sheff continues with an endless parade of prose that seems more of the product of his own pretentious need to appear literal. I mean, what the fuck would a ten year old kid be doing with studying the label of a bottle Miller High Life anyway? But somehow the “Champagne of Beers” gets a pop culture nod right next to Michael Jackson cassettes in another bounce between one of The Silver Gymnasium’s supposed eras of inspiration and the product of Sheff’s own English major that enabled him to take such creative liberties with his own memories.
Musically, The Silver Gymnasium offers a bit more in the way of production values and new approaches in the band’s arrangement that I’m not exactly sure are the result of producer John Agnello or Sheff’s own desire to make a very appropriate facsimile of the time period he’s reflecting on. Whoever instigated such a design-with the record’s inclusion of dated synthesizers and cheesy Clarence Clemons saxophones-they should have noticed that one of Okkervil River’s strengths in previous albums was how vital their shoestring budgets were in making their songs sound so epic.
With the shoestring budget apparently gone, the grandiose moments now sound contrived while Sheff’s own voice losing much of its unique character as well. It has now become another soulless instrument, always staying within the same range, always projecting the same level of sadness to the point where you’re exhausted from the endless barrage of mope by the end of the record.
Tellingly, Sheff has commissioned an 8-bit video game as part of the promotional push behind The Silver Gymnasium, in an effort to somehow make his nostalgic musings seem more legitimate. Having taken a spin through the game’s primitive graphics, I can tell you that it’s just as boring as any other 8-bit game as you’ll remember. It’s also a perfect symbolic metaphor of practically all of my complaints with the record itself.
These time capsule memories and romantic notions of Sheff’s childhood may have indeed meant the world to him, but that doesn’t mean that they are universal enough to carry the same kind of emotional weight for the rest of us.
After all, there’s a reason why the Atari 2600 is still collecting dust in your parent’s attic.