Too often accessibility is seen by reviewers as something to criticise. How dare this act (insert name of any once lo-fi act now releasing well produced music here) attempt to appeal to a wide range of people? So often though such criticism is misjudged. It is certainly misjudged when people refer to The Mountain Goats post Panasonic boombox cassette recordings and it is equally odd when referring to Okkervil River’s latest album, the highly accessible The Silver Gymnasium.
The band’s first on ATO Records this latest release is the most autobiographical yet of singer/songwriter Will Sheff’s tenure as Okkervil River frontman as he takes the listener into a brief period of his childhood in the small New Hampshire town of Meriden, where his parents worked in 1986 as teachers at a local boarding school.
Conceived as “a tribute to the spirit of pre-adolescence” the arrangements, with synths nestled beside guitars, is full of references to 1980s music thanks to some smart production from John Agnello, who has worked with artists from that era such as Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp as well as latterly with the far cooler Kurt Vile and Dinosaur Jr.
As a result it is easier on the ear than the more rock focused I Am Very Far and musically is littered with catchy hooks and pop references. It’s highly appealing but not, as Pitchfork suggests in its review of the album, a shameless attempt to sell more records at the expense of artistic credibility. The accessibility of this album’s sound and music may well end up making Sheff and co richer but artistically it is far from unnecessary; it is crucial to the album’s attempt to conjure up the emotions of an innocent, young boy in mid 80s small town America.
For me this is lyrically and musically Sheff’s best work since 2008’s Stage Names and while at the time I loved 2011’s I Am Very Far, its barely registered on my CD player in the years that have passed. Silver Gymnasium is a different beast and one I’m certain to come back to as the years go by, as I do with Stage Names.
The pacing of the album is also key. Starting with It Was My Season, with its piano melody with echoes of Boom Town Rats and then followed with the 1980s MTV friendly guitar riffs, trumpets and singalong chorus of On A Balcony.
Synths come to the fore on Down Down The Deep River, as Casey Kasem’s Top 40 continues to echo in Sheff’s ears before this upbeat opening segment to the album takes a breather on the melancholy Pink Slips and Lido Pier Suicide Car. As the album moves across the rest of its 11 tracks the 1980s synth and guitar references continue and work particularly well on Stay Young before the Cure-esque Black Nemo closes this collection.
What is perhaps most striking about Silver Gymnasium is that it pays respect to a particular era without copying it outright. Few can copy the 1980’s production outright and succeed, with Destroyer’s Kapputt and Field Music off shoot The Week That Was notable exceptions. Instead Okkervil River have created something that pays homage to an era, will satisfy the band’s fans, particularly those of Sheff’s generation, as well as attract new admirers. Is such a universal appeal really such a bad thing?
by Joe Lepper