The lessons of adolescence come hard in The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River’s seventh and most expansive record to date. A dog-eared novelization of Will Sheff’s teenage years in Meridian, New Hampshire (the lyrics are even written out in paragraphs instead of verses), Gymnasium is full of the classic literary symbols of lost innocence: falling autumn leaves, broken bones, crashed cars too big for their drivers. Sheff tumbles through the stories not so much like Holden Caulfield as Gene from A Separate Peace, a brainy, vulnerable kid trying to make sense of a world that seems increasingly alien and violent. In “It Was My Season,” which opens the album, as all good prologues should, with a rolling silent-movie style piano, he engages in a torturous late-night back-and-forth with a friend — and, possibly, lover — he’ll soon leave behind, fighting it out beneath the glow of an Atari before telescoping out at the last second to become grown-up Sheff saying, “I look back on it now and remember how mixed up I got/ before they got me sorted out.” It’s the first of the album’s many whip-pans, swooping away from young Will to his adult counterpart imbuing painful recollections with an older man’s understanding. On “White,” which echoes the slow-burn tension of fellow stately rockers The National and is tellingly placed near the story’s conclusion, Sheff calmly repeats “Summer’s here and I’m gonna crack, crack, crack,” the controlled timbre of his voice amplifying the anxiety of his words.
In a way, the album’s subject matter mirrors the group’s own musical evolution. They began as gangly, fumbling youth, prizing emotional immediacy over lyrical precision, but Sheff has steadily transformed the group into a well read, nattily-attired adjunct professor with a fondness for sidecars and a deep, fanatic knowledge of Richard Brautigan. The progression has alienated some who preferred the violent beauty of his early records, but it better serves Sheff’s increasingly prosaic approach to storytelling. A line like “I stopped by the Lake of the Strangled Crane/ it was the color of copper/ I saw the crane operator/ I heard the operator’s father say, ‘It looks like rain,’” speaks not to anxious bursts of teenage inspiration but to the value of careful word choice and good editing; if anything, The Silver Gymnasium is a master class on pop writing as narrative. (Another gem from the same song: “It’s a stairway or a slow ride/ It’s ‘Rhiannon’ or ‘Landslide’/ I heard the bartender died of a broken heart/ and a shattered pelvis/ and was buried in Kansas.”) Despite consistent misconception, the group was never an alt-country band, and they’re even less of one now: The Silver Gymnasium expands the group’s rollicking, ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll with wheezing synthesizers and wind chimes and horn charts, capturing the same anything-goes spirit as Basement Tapes-era Dylan but with the sleek sheen of recent vintage Springsteen. They’re more experimental, too: “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” both in title and in sound, recalls Scott Walker’s Scott 4, Sheff exhaling his phrases slowly, letting his elegant baritone simmer and caramelize and char like sugar on a stove.
The story doesn’t conclude so much as it vaporizes. In “Black Nemo,” over a rustic acoustic guitar, Sheff gathers up a final collection of childhood memories and releases them into the air like fistfuls of balloons, watching them grow smaller and smaller with the increasing distance, concluding of his triumphs and trauma, “These things have just got to be. I don’t know why.” Tidy narratives abhor loose ends, but Gymnasium‘s decision to end on a question mark suits its tangled, tumbling structure. If “Kids grow up” is the album’s thesis, its conclusion is, “Whether they want to or not.”