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The Silver Gymnasium takes place in 1986 in the small town of Meriden, NH.
Okkervil River band leader Will Sheff grew up in this isolated hamlet of fewer than 500 residents. His parents taught at a boarding school there. But when he went away to college, his father accepted a new job in Worcester, MA. Will had no reason to return to Meridenagain, yet it held sway over his imagination. "Meridenwas always a special place," he acknowledges. "Because it was locked away in my memory, I began to romanticize it." The more he saw of the world, the more Meriden, NH seemed like someplace he'd conjured in his head.
That overlap between the ordinary and the other worldly resonates throughout these eleven new songs. Referring to how an emerging adolescent consciousness reconciles the familiar with the unexpected, Sheff likens the spirit of The Silver Gymnasium to "an action figure you found in the woods... New Hampshire is the woods, the '80s is the action figure, but neither of them is interesting to me on their own; it's the way they go together."
Other years and locations appear throughout the lyrics, but the action always circles back to the mid-1980s and Meriden, NH, and a young man with one foot still in childhood, yet also aware of mysterious changes underway. "When I talk on the record about my adult life or I'm looking back on my time in Texas, that's all through the prism of remembering that starting point. This is a lot more straight-up autobiography and how that period relates to how I feel in my life now."
References to Atari video games, VCR machines, cassette tapes and the films and television shows of that era underscore how pop culture shaped - and disoriented - Sheff and his childhood friends. What secrets were encoded in the laser beams, novelty haircuts, crazy sunglasses and synthesizer riffs that crept into Meridenvia radio and MTV? "Picture a country kid with very little knowledge of anything outside of his small town, getting these transmissions from some glamorous other planet."
Sheff enlisted producer John Agnello, who worked on '80s pop staples including Cyndi Lauper's 'She's So Unusual,' John Mellencamp's 'Uh-Huh,' the Outfield's "Your Love," and Scandal's "The Warrior," to evoke the era's spirit. "I loved that he came up on all these records that I was listening to when I was a kid. He's an old school producer who listens to songs, helps with structures, and sees the entire project." Agnello's credits also include Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and recent releases by The Thermals and Kurt Vile.
There were other influences, too. In keeping with the mid-'80s mindset, Sheff drew inspiration from the challenges faced by seasoned singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Tom Petty as the MTV era unfolded, and how their new work integrated synthesizers and more succinct song structures. He also looked to young adult books where youthful protagonists map uncharted terrain without adult interference: 'Danny, The Champion of the World' by Roald Dahl; 'My Side of the Mountain' by Jean Craighead George; 'Lizard Music' by Daniel Pinkwater. The map ofMeridenfeatured in the artwork is deliberately drawn from a child's eye view.
From the jaunty piano opening of "It Was My Season," to the sing-along choruses of "Down Down the Deep River" and "All The Time Every Day," joie de vivre permeates The Silver Gymnasium -even in more reflective moments like "Lido Pier Suicide Car." Messages of encouragement and reassurance crop up repeatedly. From its inception, Sheff imagined this as an album that might live in your car's tape deck for years, the cassette art fading slowly from sun damage. "I wanted to make a record that was friendly, sweet and compassionate, and made people feel good when they heard it," he explains. Friendship, rather than romantic love, lies at the heart of nearly all the record's relationships.
Although The Silver Gymnasium isOkkervilRiver's seventh studio full-length, the idea for this album has been percolating in Sheff's head for years. He even created a hypertext fiction website populated with characters and places fromMeridenwhile in college. "I was fully aware this was something I was going to do... eventually." Once he finally started, the melodies and words flowed forth quickly, with minimal fuss. The recording, which was done inBrooklyn,NYandAustin,TXover a period of "a month and change," felt equally untroubled.
"Other musicians and old friends would come visit me in the studio and say, 'I can't believe how calm you seem.' But it's true, I felt very level-headed the whole time." Making The Silver Gymnasium was one of the least stressful episodes of Sheff's creative life - and yielded Okkervil River's finest work to date. "When things flow out easily, that's often a good sign. Making 'Black Sheep Boy' was like that, too, but this is our best record. It's certainly the one I like the most."
And you don't have to be from New Englandor born in the twentieth century to appreciate it. "I'm not standing on top of the mountain, screaming that my childhood was special and everyone should pay attention to it," Sheff concludes. That's not the point at all. "I am a firm believer that if you make your work very honest and personal, then it's going to be meaningful to people who aren't like you but have feelings like yours."