Austin band Okkervil River's albums are consistently detailed collections of mythologies pulled from vocalist Will Sheff's imagination and vast cultural knowledge. The band's newest release, "The Silver Gymnasium," is no exception. It's full of stories and references, as all their releases are, except all of these come from Sheff's youth.
The first hint that "The Silver Gymnasium" is more than just a typical coming of age album is the packaging. A purchase of the CD includes a map of Sheff's hometown of Meriden, N.H. that shows where each of the album's 11 songs takes place. Similar maps and trips through New Hampshire have been the basis of much of the promotion for "The Silver Gymnasium," including a Pitchfork video where the band plays cuts off the album at open mic nights throughout Meriden and an interactive map on NPR accompanied with photos from Sheff's youth and additional stories about the places included.
Musically, "The Silver Gymnasium" is fuller and more complete than some of the band's past music. Sheff's voice has more of an arena-rock growl and a good number of songs sound a whole lot like they could be by Arcade Fire. The instrumentation is groomed tighter, and there's less experimenting and more crispness, purpose and polish.
The album is rooted in nostalgia, but it's a triumphant, optimistic nostalgia. Even the softest songs, like the foggy and timid "Lido Pier Suicide Car," finish with a gust of spirit. A coming of age album must include moments of sadness, but Sheff makes a point to include his getting back up after each fall. On "All The Time, Every Day," Sheff sings of making his way "through the dark...every time, any day, any time, all the way," which is really what all of the albums darker songs conclude with. A highlight near the end of the album is "Stay Young." Chipper, upbeat and sprinkled with synths and horns, it's a celebration of the accomplishments mentioned in songs before it.
"Down Down The Deep River," the album's lead single, is perhaps the biggest success. It's a heartwarming recollection of Sheff's early exposure to the music, art and film that now has so much influence on his own creations. It follows the typical Okkervil River pattern of gradually building to a peak, but because it clocks in at 6:33 the song fits in a lot of less expected moments. If the typical Okkervil River song is a mountain, "Down Down the Deep River" is a whole mountain range. It would make a great closer for a live show.
What makes "The Silver Gymnasium" so powerful is the fact that even without looking at the map or hearing the stories that accompany each of the songs, we can tell where in Sheff's life they came from. "Down Down the Deep River" is a rainy night in middle school sitting on the floor with only a radio for company. "Stay Young" is his 18th birthday.
The magic of this album is that not only do you hear bits of Sheff's childhood in each song, but you also can hear bits of your own. For its most recent concept album, Okkervil River has made a record that seems to tell all of our stories.