opinion by ADAM OFFITZER
Okkervil River’s biggest and most powerful songs to date – “Unless It’s Kicks,” “Lost Coastlines,” and “Rider” – all rely on the same time-tested musical trope: the build-up. All three drive forward with a relentless, charging intensity, pushing beautiful melodies and catchy choruses to higher heights with each repetition, destined to be sing-along arena anthems. The band’s weaker tracks, on the other hand, tend to be muddled down by a darker mood and slower pace.
For those of us who have longed to see this band in full on, epic arena rock mode, The Silver Gymnasium is the album we’ve been waiting for.
Gymnasium is completely dominated by “the build-up.” Almost every song starts with a simple bop-along melody and beautiful, open-air instrumentals, eventually escalating into a giant orchestral anthem with strings, horns, and an extra dose of passion from lead singer Will Sheff. It’s like Mumford and Sons – just with better lyrics and more musical ingenuity.
In fact, in many ways, The Silver Gymnasium’s dual reliance on the “build-up” and ‘80s nostalgia make it feel like a Killers album – in the best way possible. Each song is an intentional epic, with a sense of humor, an easygoing breeziness, and a defiant sincerity. It’s finds the band embracing the arena rock perfected on its best songs, with a sense of purpose driven by Sheff’s savvy for telling meaningful, earnest stories.
Gymnasium is unabashedly a concept album – and Sheff wants to make sure you don’t forget it. On NPR’s website, you can click through an interactive map that comes with the album’s physical copy, detailing a fantastical version of Sheff’s hometown, Meriden, New Hampshire, in 1983 – where the album’s stories take place.
The songs all tell stories of youth, dripping with nostalgia and woven together with a childlike innocence and sense of spirit. “It Was My Season” kicks off the album with references to Atari and a VCR to properly establish the time period. In many ways, The Silver Gymnasium actually works as a musical form of a “home video.” Sheff’s songs paint the pictures you might expect to watch on the old VCR stored in your attic – grainy, vague videos of childhood, from elementary school days to late teenage years.
As is always the case with the music of Okkervil River, the lyrics often tap into a certain melancholy and sadness. But for the most part, Silver Gymnasium makes for an uplifting and triumphant listen, with a positive energy running through the music and the melodies.
“Young, stay young,” Sheff pleads on the album’s conceptual centerpiece. “Strong, stay strong…don’t get on with it.” Sure, he may go on to mention “hurters” and “haters” as the sad realities that come with growing up. But he still sounds happy singing about it. On the beautiful “All The Time, Every Day,” Sheff sounds positively joyous, as he sings of making his way “through the dark…every time, any day, any time, all the way.” On the six-minute anthem “Down The Deep River,” he asks if “there’s a great gold spirit in the summer sky, or all your friends, all your best, best friends, are gonna gather around your bed at night.”
“That’ll make it all right,” Sheff hopes, “because it is still so far from alright.” But as a swarm of inviting horns, handclaps, and warm synthesizers surround him, everything sounds just fine. [B+]