Born to Run in Circles

The Silver Gymnasium
Okkervil Riversilver
ATO Records, 2013

by Noah Kucij

The problem of the past – what to make of it, what to keep and what to throw away – has always been with us in the arts.  While the great minds of the Renaissance had to dig up and dust off the Classics in order to propel Europe out of the dark ages, the Modernists of the last century sought to break away from the old altogether.  Rock shares these crossing trajectories toward and away from the past, which makes for some weird traffic jams: a critic might praise the Black Keys for their clean-lined neo-blues furnishings, and rip the Black Crowes for their shaggy, stuck-in-the-seventies down-homeyness.  These days it is equally hep to don longjohns, strap on a mando and sing about your whiskey still, or to fire up a Macbook and make it rain a sequence of ironic electrons.

A further wrinkle to consider is that rock music, despite a few decades of mainstream dominance now in the rearview, really isn’t synonymous with popular music.  If you’re pop, by definition you look to the future; if you want to be relevant, you’d better spy on your little sister and mimic how she wears her hair and inflects her speech.  You might draw on elements of the past, but only on those that are currently “back” per the teenie masses.  If you’re rock, you’ve got history in your mission statement.  Despite a continuum of influences spanning centuries and continents, you can really be said to have come into your own in Mississippi juke joints and Chicago studios, San Francisco ballrooms and New York clubs – and wherever you go from there, the past casts a long shadow.  Hence you get a cabal of forward-thinking, “progressive”-type dudes writing something called the Old School Record Review.  Despite however post-post-everything the zeitgeist gets, we will always have the summer we listened to nothing but our hand-dubbed copy of Ten; the night we stayed up until daybreak with our brand new Zeppelin boxed set; the winter we gawked through a pile of LPs that hadn’t been played since before we were born.

To put it more succinctly (though why start now?): The past is inescapable.  And still I feel a bit guilty calling The Silver Gymnasium, an album that slurps greedily of the past in both musical forms and lyrical content, one of the best albums I’ve heard this century.  I feel a bit guilty every time I listen to Okkervil River’s seventh record, which is unreasonably often, because it yields so many of rock’s familiar pleasures so easily across its 49 minutes.  Sonically, it has studied at the feet of the Band and the E-Street Band and the Spiders from Mars.  Thematically, it’s high-octane material you’d have to be a real hack to squander: intense teenage relationships, tragedy, grown-up disillusionment.  But lyricist-singer Will Sheff does much more than simply wrangle this menagerie of emotional beasts – he gets them to fly.

“It Was My Season” is a dazzling first punch.  An early verse presents the kind of motor-running courtship that out-Bosses the Boss:

Step out of your trailer and into this dark.
It’s warm and it’s breathin’ and it’s our season.

But this affair proves somewhat more fraught than Bruce kicking it to Wendy or Mary or Rosalita, and it isn’t until the last moments of the song that the full implications of the doomed relationship are masterfully revealed.

Before you can catch your breath, there’s “From A Balcony,” and yeah, it is a little like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” following “Thunder Road.”  It makes you wonder why, after Arcade Fire made arena-ready anthems cool again, there weren’t a million Funeral clones competing for our fist-pumps.  And the answer is probably because it’s really hard to write and deliver a credible anthem, despite how easily “Wake Up” and “Badlands” and “Evenflow” seem to issue from their singers’ split-open chests.  Anthem is probably the wrong word for The Silver Gymnasium’s songs, because they’re so personal and specific in their scope, but they’ve got such a big, urgent oomph to them that their catharsis feels like ours, too.  And that’s hard to pull off.

So when this album keeps bringing high-concept yet gutsy show-stoppers for 49 minutes, you shouldn’t be surprised by how moving and impressive it is.  Sheff explores the territory of youth with equal mastery of the literal and the metaphorical.  In “Pink Slips,” he tells it straight:

Nine years down in Texas with sluts of both sexes,
Liars, lumps, and drug addicts, and drunks; I love my friends…

In “Stay Young,” those friends are recast as the characters of myth (aren’t they always?):

And I call to all my friends, all the cracked-cassette-tape-thrillers
All the hand-inside-the-tillers and the hundred-dollar-billers,
Standing by the stone that was rejected by the builders,
There was drinking at the bar they carried from the burning building.

The Silver Gymnasium
’s track-three heart-chakra, “Down Down the Deep River,” glows with both kinds of lyrical power, and many kinds of musical power too.  It’s a six-and-a-half-minute juggernaut of driving pop rock that moves from sprawling reminiscence to painful flashback.  Early on Sheff sings another perfect verse about those ravishing, once-in-a-lifetime teenage friendships:

We lie awake at night in a tent and I say “Tell me about your uncle and his friend
Cause they seem like very bad men. Well, we’ll wanna keep away from them”…
Tell me about the greatest show or the greatest movie you know
Or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio
You’re gonna play it again and again, it cuts off at the ending, though…

The next verse swoops right to a bird’s-eye-view of tragedy:

And it’s the rescue party, the volunteer team
Ah, they’re just kids of eighteen, and it’s the worst thing they’ve seen
And they’re standing all around that tree
And I’m so sorry and I can’t stop crying

The chorus weaves between these moments with a retrospective dread that colors all the verses’ outpourings:

Down a hall in your house, down a road in December
(Down, down, down the deep river, down, down, down the deep river)

It’s become clear I can’t stop myself from quoting at length.  Because really, my instinct to write about such music is not a critical but a social calling.  I want you to hear this album.  I want to get you in that tent with me and whisper about the thrill of each song, the way we did when we were young enough for melodrama and pop-up tents and freak accidents.

The album’s perfect title never appears as a phrase in the copious lyrics of Sheff’s songs; instead it serves as an image of a space that traps reflections and echoes forever within its walls.  But it’s my contention that this album, for all its backward-gazing and influence-wearing, should not lose points for being a mere nostalgia piece.  Sheff says he composed these songs in order “to talk about nostalgia and about childhood in general, and it felt more productive to use my own childhood as the model.”  This is not exploitative aw-shucksing about the past.  It’s a brave exploration, a ravenous salvaging of the raw materials of youth, and an album to take sailing into the future.

One thought on “Born to Run in Circles

  1. There’s an eeriness to all Okkervil albums that entice a feeling of nostalgia that just won’t quit. And it’s not a nostalgia for anything specific even but rather moments and ideas. Whether it’s the dark quiet moments of Black Sheep Boy or the blaring trumpets and upbeat tempos of Silver Gymnasium, you’re gonna walk away glad that you listened.

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