This isn’t the first rodeo for Texas band Okkervil River, but there certainly feels like there is something new going on here for the veteran band. While many of the previous Okkervil River albums seemed cloaked in darkness and sadness, “The Silver Gymnasium” manages to turn the formula around for the band, showing a bit of optimism, or rather hope at times on the album. That isn’t to say their isn’t some darkness on this album as well. Certainly it is there at times in the lyrics, and even in the vocals, like on the song ‘White’ which has an ominous beginning but gives way to an uplifting beat. The dichotomy between the bits of darkness and bits of hope is what makes this album a worthwhile listen.
Album opener ‘It Was My Season’ gets the album started with some playful piano, an airy tune that manages to convey the kind of nostalgic feeling you get throughout “The Silver Gymnasium”. ‘On A Balcony’ picks up on that same vibe, incorporating a brass section, making us all yearn for that time when we were younger and things were much simpler. It is clear when you get to ‘Stay Young’ that lead man Will Sheff, while not avoiding adulthood and the decisions he has made, has decided that for right now home is where his heart is. There is a struggle going on here between what is, and what was, and ultimately it makes the album sound bittersweet. There is talk about leaving town, references to Christmas as a kid and plenty of talk about dreams in the world of ‘Pink Slips’. Album closer ‘Black Nemo’ is an absolute gem, a lightly picked acoustic number with splashes of pedal steel, that conveys the very essence of the album beautifully.
Maybe it is my age, but I think Sheff and company have made an album perfect for adults who have had a lifetime of various experiences. There are things that are going to happen to all of us, and we might not make all the right choices, but we can always go back home via our memories. Our memories allow us to to travel back to when we were young. We can remember a time when we dreamed big things, and felt we would accomplish it all. And although things may have not turned out as perfect as we hoped, there is value in not forgetting that part of our lives, when optimism and naivety reigned supreme. Those times were care free, and rarely as adults do we get to have those moments any longer.
I mentioned the word bittersweet when describing ‘Gymnasium’, and I don’t think there is a more appropriate word I could find, but I want to end the review this way. I described this album as a bit optimistic and hopeful as well. While that wouldn’t necessarily coincide with the term bittersweet, I want to point out that bittersweet is a combination of two words, bitter and sweet. It’s no mistake that the bitter comes first, because the sweet is what lasts on this album. Ultimately, in the end, Okkervil River end up making one hell of an album, and making us feel that everything is going to be alright.