There’s this lovely quote from Okkervil River‘s now 36-year-old mastermind, Will Sheff, from a Pitchfork piece that chronicles artists’ tastes in a kind of Up series way in five-year intervals in which he takes a militant shot at the “frozen” set, those “too old to change,” Sheff heating up: “Fuck you, you’re lucky to be alive, asshole. Why don’t you try to grow? It’s a gift to get to be born and not suddenly die of cancer or get hit by a car.” He was talking about people’s inability to find or appreciate new music. But if you’re reading this review, you probably share the belief that music is not a self-contained thing.
That said, The Silver Gymnasium, as with its six, plaintive, wailing alt-country predecessors was dug neck deep into Sheff’s past. Not in a tired, uninventive way, but rather another fruitful therapy session in making sense of that silly thing called memory, and unwinding its clench, finger by finger on how it effects a man’s ability to grow into something else. Opening with the bouncing autumnal shuffle, “It Was My Season,” Sheff lays out the process early: [LISTEN]
I look back on it now and remember how mixed up I got,
Before they got me sorted out
All that heart-in-my-mouth,
All that head filled with doubt
It’s fading out
I hardly think about it now
The lasting charm of The Silver Gymnasium, though, is both its meticulous setting in Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, the record named after his boarding school, set in a specific year – 1986 – packaged in the surreal, location specific artwork of childhood friend William Schaff, splayed with a giant bird man carrying a house on his back through town. Once you drop the needle, and the abundance of major key chord progressions and bouncing keys and accordions come along, the whole experience is like stumbling upon a 10-year-old kid’s treehouse filled with little savant drawings and poems of the entire town and its people.
The poems and drawings get dark, but they’re cathartically intoxicating, strewn out in clever Q&A’s (“All The TIme Every Day“), heartbreaking first-person mission statements (“Stay Young“) and fleeting halcyon remembrances for the sake of crushing noir, as in the kind of curtain call of the record, “Down Down the Deep River,” horns blasting on the tail end of Sheff’s reimagining of one of the exact points his innocence faded: [LISTEN]
‘Tell me about the greatest show, or the greatest movie you know, or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio
Play it again and again. (It cuts off at the ending, though.) Tell me I’m always going to be your best friend
You said it one time — why don’t you say it again?
All the way down the line to where the telephone ends, come on and shout it on down the wire!
And that it’s not all right, that it’s not even close to all right’
Will Sheff – the question form of his name – have a different opinion of the “frozen” set after this album? Not likely. But surely, if you know one of these ‘frozen assholes’ – give them The Silver Gymnasium, put your hand on their should while doing so, and plead with them that it’s never too late.