Okkervil-River-The-Silver-Gymnasium[xrr rating=3.5/5]Fifteen years and now seven albums deep (or maybe more, depending on how some of the ancillary efforts such as 2010’s collaboration with Roky Erickson are tallied), Okkervil River now get to be elder statespeople of indie rock, right? That comes with privileges, to be sure, but there’s also a certain shifting anticipation about their efforts. There’s less urgency and excitement in the air as The Silver Gymnasium arrives, maybe because of the mildly mixed reception that greeted 2011 outing I Am Very Far. The ever-fickle blogosphere isn’t popping the same way it did for the likes of The Stage Names, back when everyone was overjoyed to prove their music knowledge mettle by ticking off the references in “The Plus Ones.” The abundant pleasure of discovery may be gone, but there’s still something to be said for Will Sheff’s skills as a songwriter and a bandleader.

In line with the Okkervil River aesthetic, The Silver Gymnasium is a loose concept album, dwelling on memories of growing up in the 1980s, when “crackling tapes” packed with favorite songs were like keys to the universe, of the sort one might swear they found in the engine of an old parked car. The allusion to Bruce Springsteen is deliberate, as Sheff and his cohorts occasionally lean on subtler versions of some of sonic tricks of that titan of the MTV decade, like wistful harmonica tones or boisterous horns. When the Decemberists aped the Boss on their 2011 release The King is Dead, it seemed a blatant (but still highly enjoyable) stab at greater commercial success. It doesn’t come across as equally calculating when Okkervil River employs a similar strategy on The Silver Gymnasium, maybe because it suits the considered hindsight of Sheff’s lyrics. Maybe it’s simply that the band’s normal swell of emotion—in both lyrics and music—lends itself to such fulsome embellishments.

Besides a little bit of added eloquent bombast, The Silver Gymnasium is notable for the sense that Sheff is getting a little more personal than he has before, a natural side effect of noodling around in nostalgia. In that way, the album recalls the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, another instance of a songwriter with a gift for creating poignant characters and scenarios plunging into autobiographical revelation like never before. It’s questionable as to whether Sheff even has something as wrenching as “This Year” or “Dance Music” in him, but it’s hard to deny the potency of lyrics like, “Tossed in the viper pit/ All those feelings and fears/ And all that difficult shit/ In all those tender years,” on “Down Down the Deep River.” Those lines are melded with music of driving rock ‘n’ energy instead of the lament they suggest. That’s typical across the album, beginning with the jaunty piano opening of lead track “It Was My Season,” on which Sheff announces, “If you want to stop our thing, you’ll stop my heart/ All this pain inside’s still just too sharp.” Maybe that’s part of looking backward: even the sadness and disappointment has an oddly pleasant undertone.

Not everything on the album works perfectly, and the production sheen provided by noted Dinosaur Jr. producer John Agnello sometimes glows a touch too brightly. I’m offering no compliment when I note that the officious, anthemic midsection of “Lido Pier Suicide Car” reminded me of Fun. And the crispness of the album can sometimes obscure the depth of emotion found within the lyrics when it should instead be providing an interesting juxtaposition. If there’s new creative territory to be mapped, this first pass at it is sometimes rendered in a more sketchy fashion than might be ideal. Still, The Silver Gymnasium provides welcome evidence that Sheff and Okkervil River aren’t going to settle for stasis, even if their longevity could theoretically earn them a little laurel-resting.

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