Will Sheff goes back to the future…
Terrible things happened in the 1980s. People rolled up the jackets of their suit sleeves. There were keyboards worn like guitars, and guitars with no heads. It was widely believed acceptable behaviour to play the bass with one’s thumb. Every drum sound echoed like a thunderclap, everything else was drenched in turgid washes of synthesiser. Dave Stewart was paid money to produce things. Of the hair, we shall not speak.
Yet this much-mocked decade was – especially when regarded from a distance of thirty years’ steady diminishment of rock’n’roll and fracturing of popular culture – incredibly exciting. MTV, the beginning of the media saturation which would eventually eat music alive from within, was in its early stages an invigorating agent making even the furthest-flung of settlements feel part of what was going on. Among these hamlets was Meriden, New Hampshire, home to fewer than 500 souls, one of whom was Will Sheff. The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River’s seventh studio album, finds Sheff revving up whatever a 21st century mad professor might use instead of a DeLorean, and returning whence he came.
The Silver Gymnasium is, then, a concept album. But it is emphatically not a period piece. Though produced by John Agnello – once an accessory to assorted abominations by Cyndi Lauper, The Hooters, John Cougar Mellencamp and Twisted Sister, among others – “The Silver Gymnasium” conforms mostly to Okkervil River’s established template of anxious, wordy New Wave power pop (though this was, of course, a staple genre of the MTV era in the first place). The musical gestures to the period in which “The Silver Gymnasium” is set are few, and unshowy. Were one not equipped with foreknowledge of what Sheff was doing here, the big tinkling Cheap Trick keyboard riff on “Down Down The Deep River”, the shuffling Mr Mister white-boy funk of “Stay Young” would appear so seamless as to be unremarkable.
The Silver Gymnasium, is no exercise in whimsical nostalgia. The opening track, “It Was My Season”, conceals beneath its jaunty Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish piano, and references to VCRs and Ataris, blurred recollections of teenage anguish which seem to surprise Sheff with its lingering potence, as memories of this febrile period in any person’s life can (“This pain inside’s still just too sharp/What was I thinking?”). There are recurring memories of assorted car crashes, some accidental, some apparently deliberate (“Lido Pier Suicide Car”). There are what appear laments to compadres who didn’t make it out of Meriden, and/or adolescence (“Walking Without Frankie”).
There are also, more happily, any number of reminders of Sheff’s treasurable idiosyncrasies as a writer, of the fact that he is one of very few whose voice is recognisable in just a couple of lines of any given lyric sheet. The baleful yet irresistible singalong “All The Time Every Day” is structured as a Q&A dialogue, the chorused title replying to such posers as “Do you watch the world get cold, and crushed and small? And when you could do so much, do you do fuck all?”
This last reproach is as crucial to The Silver Gymnasium, as it is to all examinations of youth as reviewed from middle age (though Sheff is not yet 40, his precocity advances him a decade or so). If we knew then what we know now, we’d be richer, happier and/or would at least have gotten laid a lot more. Conversely, if only we could unlearn some of what we have picked up since then, we’d be braver, kinder, more passionate. Or, as Sheff puts it on “Stay Young”, “Don’t get tough. Don’t ‘get on with it’. Stay on. It’s so heartbreaking and it’s so sad when it’s gone.”
The Silver Gymnasium, is the archest conceit Okkervil River have yet attempted – a considerable accolade for this group in particular. But it is also the sincerest, most heartfelt album they’ve yet assembled, and it’s all the more powerful for it.
Why Meriden, New Hampshire, and why 1986?
I love it when art feels local. It’s done in films all the time, but rarely in rock music. And I think New England is misrepresented in art, as a sanitizsed land of picket fences where everyone talks like a Kennedy, and under-represented in songwriting.
The 1980s adolescence seems to have been more so than most. Was there something special about being young at that time?
I actually think it was kind of a terrible, tragic time. Especially in the second half. Something horrible happened to culture. People think of 80s music as silly, but when you look at stuff like ‘Scary Monsters’, ‘Remain In Light’, ‘Cupid & Psyche ’85’, you see the real promise of the 80s. Then it all crumbled and by the end it was all mullets and DX7s and gated drums and horror.
Was making a concept album kind of an act of rebellion against the way that music has now become so fragmented, so instant?
Yeah. I realised that for better or for worse I compose songs with a lot of love and care, and try to make whole integrated artworks that at least in my dreams will last for a little while. I think I kind of came home to that idea and just thought I was going to make something that felt defiantly substantial.
How important was it to choose a producer associated with the 80s?
I don’t want to take the listener to 1986 sonically. I want to take them there emotionally. We didn’t stress about period details in the sound. It was more about paying tribute to the spirit of that time, both the carefree and vulnerable aspects of childhood and what a child absorbed from the easy-breezy vibe of rock radio. I wanted a producer who was actually there, but more importantly I wanted a producer who was a real producer.
INTERVIEW: ANDREW MUELLER