Six LPs into a decade-long career led by frontman Will Sheff, few bands have produced such consistently excellent output as Okkervil River; to deviate from what's made them so well-loved (soaring, literate pop, heavy on theatrics and startlingly affecting vocals) for the riskier waters of confessional, first-person songwriting this far in is a step few bands might make.
But Okkervil just might've produced the best record of their career.
The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil's seventh, is set in the 1986 version of Sheff's hometown of Meriden, NH, a tiny place of about 500 residents. For now, though, Meriden is on the map. "I don't even know why I did this," Sheff explains. "I know emotionally why I did it, which is because I love my fucking town a lot, like a little kid loves his mom."
But he admits to some trepidation about Meriden becoming a focus: "One of the things that's amazing about my town is that it's locked in time, isolated. Nobody's cell phone works, and it's beautiful, and it's natural. And if even one fan was like, 'I'm gonna check out Meriden because I love Okkervil River,' and then moved there, in the process of buying that house cut down one tree, I would regret it. I want Meriden to stay exactly the same."
Even if The Silver Gymnasium sounds markedly different from the band's past efforts--it's breezier, for one, and more likely to find a wider audience--it's still very much an Okkervil album, working through themes the band has grappled with before. When asked about the lighter tone, Sheff explained, "I've always wanted to make pop or rock music that is adult. That was the way I interpreted things like the Velvet Underground--Lou Reed talking about sex and drugs and death. One of the things you learn when you get older, though, is that not everything is sex and death and darkness. In fact, that's a kind of version of an adult that a kid envisions.
"You get older and see pain and loss are much realer than you realize," he continues. "They're facts of life, waiting for you behind every corner. And something happened where I realized my job was to be honest always, and honesty means sometimes not dwelling on darkness--that sometimes you need to prop the listener up and help them. Because they need it. Because life is scary. Not in the way a kid thinks it's scary, it's scary for real. I wanted to make something that was positive and upbeat, but in a way that understood that all of that pain and fear was there."
Indeed, there's no shortage of disorderliness and darkness in this album, even if it's through the lens of adolescence. As usual, much of this can be attributed to Sheff, whose lyrics rival anyone in narrative storytelling. "Waking in the dawn, with that dream getting dimmer and dimmer," he sings in "Down Down the Deep River," a standout on an album of standouts. "Say you still see it. Say you remember. Are we going down the deep river? I know it's scary, baby."
It's a fine line to walk. Something in Sheff's voice, and his facility with detail, invite his audience to conflate all of his lyrics with confessions. When asked what it's like to play these new, personal songs live, Sheff explains, "It's good because being on stage--I can't believe I'm saying this word--is like a sacrament in some way. It's you spending some time with whatever made you want to do music in the first place. I get to be closer to that thing. I don't do this because I want to be confessional or get everybody to pay attention to me. I just feel it's my job to make things more pretty and nice for people. And to do that, I have to put something on of value on the table."
Okkervil River is scheduled to perform Saturday, October 19 at Crescent Ballroom.
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