Memories as Mythologies
Listen to this album with the imagination of a child and you’ll be just set. That’s the particular headspace that Okkervil River’s Will Sheff inhabits for this project. Yes, this may be the furthest the group has wandered from their well-established ethos but it feels like high time. Our Sheff serves up some of the most personal and introspective work that Okkervill River has ever brought to the table.
Okkervil had to rewind to return to the start of The Silver Gymnasium. It starts like any day would for the 10-year-old Sheff in middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire, circa ’86. This is not a side of Sheff we’ve seen before; he’s wide-eyed and starting to make sense of the world around him. It appears that our present-day Sheff is just getting to know this kid as well— he’s looking back to his childhood in hope of understanding how he arrived at the present.
Musically, this isn’t Okkervil River’s strongest collective outing. Vibrancy and joviality are overt and occasionally miss the mark. It’s not that these passages lack anything particular, but they learn toward the generic and don’t feel quite right for Okkervil, whose back catalogue seems to prove that it’s nicest out with a couple dark clouds in the sky.
It takes a while to peel back the layers of the onion because Gymnasium is tidy and susceptible to oversimplification. There’s the obvious admiration of innocence, but Sheff seems more focused on those inevitable watershed moments that corrupt us forever. Sheff’s goal here isn’t to offer a detailed account of his childhood. Rather, he’s fixated on how we relate to memory and his thesis seems to be that we are who we once were.
This unique approach to narrative makes for a thought-provoking album. Although our primary perspective is through a child, the grown Sheff also works the hindsight angle with great dexterity. This allows him to reevaluate ancient memories and even doubt some of them. He’s simultaneously in the moment and removed from it, which questions the reliability of the narrator and forces us to consider how mythologized our own histories have become. Eventually the truth and the tall tale become stored ubiquitously and our memories become mythologies.
These tracks don’t have a very edgy feel, but this is permissible because the story behind this album is much more interesting than the actual music anyway. Sheff & co. have made a great effort to physically transport their audience to ’86 Meriden, CT. In collaboration with Okkervil’s longstanding and celebrated artist, William Schaff, they created an interactive map of the city that blends cartography with folklore. On top of that, they’ve also created an Atari-like videogame that can be played on their website, which is another attempt at making that world accessible to us.
Lovers of this album will most likely see some reflection of their youth in Sheff’s world. It takes a great storyteller to achieve such a feat, which is to usher universal sympathy and compassion from an unshared experience. This is no perfect album but why waste the breath? The Silver Gymnasium champions great storytelling, which, in folk music, is the only must.