Good luck finding much of anyone using the term "nostalgic" as a compliment nowadays, but I wonder if we might revise our position based on Okkervil River's latest, The Silver Gymnasium, released on ATO Records (their first for the label, after years with Jagjaguwar) just last Tuesday.
To be sure, Okkervil's laying the nostalgia on pretty thick. Gymnasium is a concept album "set" in a mid-1980s Meriden, NH, the boyhood home of Okkervil's frontman, Will Sheff. As with everything Okkervil does, though, the music's only part of the larger package: the William Schaff artwork for the record (which Sheff describes as his "single favorite piece" that Schaff has done for the band) is a map of Meriden, complete with number assignments for each place referenced in each song.
If that wasn't enough, they've also opted to release the album on cassette, and have even supplied a hokey, fun, surprisingly profound 8-bit videogame where you can "play" the album. Oh, and then there's the Youtube video with all sorts of pictures of a young Sheff in Meriden with his family, scanned over à la Ken Burns.
None of this might matter so much if the album weren't so beautifully, hauntingly good.
There's a pep in these songs that might be surprising to those listeners accustomed to the understated and crushing Down the River of Golden Dreams, or the dark bombast of 2005's Black Sheep Boy. But like Springsteen at his E Street best, the pep works here, undergirding the sorrow of the songs with a buoyant, lilting joy. These songs are childhood memories you can dance to.
Though they haven't been released as a standalone book, as he's done in the past, Sheff's lyrics, as always, demand a special attention. In the hands of a lesser writer, the Atari reference in the album opener "It Was My Season" (almost certainly intended to be critic fodder, it seems) would be some cheap, kitschy punch line; here, though, it's a legitimate period detail, somehow fresh despite its ubiquity as an "ironic" t-shirt, more or less necessary in the song.
And that, perhaps, it what make's Sheff's writing here, and really in so many of Okkervil's songs, absolutely special and essential: it's devoid of irony.
It's far too smart for all of that. Sheff aims are higher, and the emotional punch that eventually follows that Atari line ("They say that I'll go to college. They say that you'll stay home and watch while I'm leaving, and that the cold will just creep in.") is hair-raising, surely the envy of many a writer.
It's the reason that Okkervil continues to matter, record after outstanding record.
The difference here, and the thing that sets Gymnasium apart from even Okkervil's other stellar efforts, is that futile desire to go back to something that's lost and irretrievable, which seems to be Gymnasium's primary occupation.
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It's sad, and that's really what nostalgia is, after all, but Sheff's not giving us Norman Rockwell circa 1986, or even something akin to the saturated fashion statements that Wes Anderson movies have become. The Silver Gymnasium makes Meriden feel real, and the nostalgia that informs the songs becomes somehow universal, admirable, necessary.