Photo by Robert Cross
“I always try to do something opposite from the previous,” said Okkervil River leader Will Sheff in front of live KUTX at the Four Seasons audience. “Our last record was this thorny, pushing people away, aggressive dark thing, so I wanted to do something friendly and warm.” The result is Okkervil’s latest record The Silver Gymnasium. Sheff’s 1980s childhood in small-town New Hampshire inspired the album (he even took the record’s title from the name of the gym at the boarding school he attended), but says Sheff, it’s also about, “the way that really little kids process things, process friendship, process loss, process their parents, and what their parents might be going through.”
That’s universal. We all can remember the wonder tinged with confusion and the confusion tinged with hope that goes with being a kid. You can hear it on their Four Seasons set opener “It Was My Season” (which also leads off The Silver Gymnasium). In the song, Sheff spins a personal tale–not in that he reveals deep secrets or anything like that. But it’s personal because it almost feels like an inside conversation. He’s speaking to you, the listener, like you’re one of his intimates, about the day-to-day banalities of being a kid (and I use that term loosely, because when you’re a kid, barely anything in your life is banal). “Below the Atari I could feel your heart was just going. We’ll meet on the weekend. Your dad won’t be home. Your sister’s out cleaning,” sings Sheff. And that line brings up another point. Despite the references to 80s tech like Ataris and VCRs, Sheff could be singing about Xboxs and Blu-Rays, and it would still have the same emotional heft. To top it off, it’s just a plain lovely song. The melody manages to sound cheery, with just a hint of sadness lurking in the shadows. Sheff set out to create something different than what came before, and while that might be true from a strictly musical point of view, what hasn’t changed is Okkervil’s uncanny ability to tap the emotional core, and sonically translate all that comes out–whether it’s dark, light, or that ever-important, confounding, awe-inspiring bit of grey in between.
You can catch Okkervil River at ACL Fest 2013:
Friday, Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. on the Honda Stage