Director Wes Anderson’s storybook world has a famously controlled quality, neat to the point of fastidiousness, in which the messiness of real-life emotions gets subsumed within a fog of placid, gentle ennui. Okkervil River’s songs embody a more sinister realm, dotted with war criminals and child murderers, where emotion tends to react in more unexpected ways, via crescendo-timed explosions of curdled hope and wounded resentment. Yet these two worlds suddenly get a lot closer on The Silver Gymnasium, a nostalgic album about frontman Will Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, circa 1986. It even comes paired with a particularly Andersonian animated map of this halfway fantastical place, a fitting companion for this autumnal tour of vanished youth, which blends period touches with the band’s familiar musical tics.
The setting’s specific focus provides Okkervil River with what might be its most fixed concept yet, following a series of albums built around amorphous thematic skeletons, from the mythic ugly-duckling story of Black Sheep Boy to the representational and existential concerns of The Stage Names. Here the concept leaks into the music, which integrates facsimiles of styles, from New Order’s reserved luster to Springsteen’s preening bombast, from the time period in which the story is set. Yet these elements never take over the songs, which favor the concise, slightly ragged approach the band has embraced of late integrated as sonic tags for the backward-glancing lyrics. In the same way, Sheff doesn’t surrender to wistfulness or sentiment in chronicling his childhood home, focusing less on the memories themselves than the way they’ve coursed through his creative bloodstream—the stamp an important time and place leaves on everything that follows.
Having dodged two potentially overbearing gimmicks here (the reminiscence record and the reworked oldies record), The Silver Gymnasium moves forward propulsively, drawing inspiration from the analysis of this halo effect, the way self-conceived legends and fantasies dominate and replace actual memories. “Stay Young” starts off as a cautionary communiqué to a preadolescent self, but ends up abandoning its initial Peter Pan message entirely, getting caught up in other eddies of nostalgia, remembering that the loss of innocence can also be pretty fun in itself. Tracks like “Lido Pier Suicide Car” and “Where the Spirit Left Us” chart similar patterns of loss, finding, like much of the album, that those bittersweet pangs are in themselves addictive, leaving behind a pain that’s more comforting than agonizing. Ostensibly about a specific time and place, The Silver Gymnasium confirms Okkervil River as a band that’s still too crafty to settle for anything so simple as a straightforward paean to childhood, using this boilerplate structure to examine the deeper meaning behind the natural impulse to fixate on the past.