Austin, much to the chagrin of some of its established natives, is a city of transplants. It’s easy to hate on the influx of nameless, faceless people coming from Houston or California or New York to ruin all that this city holds dear. But most of us are transplants, be it from San Marcos or San Diego. And that’s why it makes a certain kind of sense that one of the best Austin records of the year might be the one about Meriden, New Hampshire.
Will Sheff, the genius songsmith behind Okkervil River, grew up in that small New England town before heading off to college at Macalester in Minnesota and ultimately landing in Austin to start a band. To this day, Sheff remains a highly underrated part of the Capital City’s musical legacy. Another transplant.
On their latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff and Okkervil River paint a vivid portrait of growing up in a small American town in the 1980’s. Most of the songs don’t have to take place in Meriden in the 1980’s; they can belong to all of us, anywhere, anytime. And while it is crazy frustrating that Sheff’s vocals are often slurred or not emphasized in the mix, making them difficult to decipher or follow, this is a very rewarding set of songs.
Sheff might be the best songwriter who continually fails to deliver a quotable couplet. Album opener “It Was My Season” is an amazing track. The way Sheff breathlessly crams, “What was I thinking?” between two verses, or how he describes a VCR as “weeping” are only preludes to the gut-wrenching verse delivered at the end of this song. “Season” packs in enough detail and emotion to be a treatment for a coming-of-age movie, but its best line is, “Below the Atari, I could feel your heart going.” It’s hard to convince other people about Sheff’s genius without forcing them to dive completely into a full track (or album).
Another standout is “Down Down the Deep River,” which plays on my intense love of Bruce Springsteen with a keyboard hook straight from Born in the U.S.A. and the opening line, “Spit into the center of your hometown, there’s leaves in the street, and there are friends around you now.” It’s an upbeat song about growing up in small-town America that keeps reminding you, “It’s not alright; it’s not even close to alright.” It’s hard to say, but it seems that this could be a song about the literal death of a friend or the metaphorical death of a friendship. And it’s catchy as hell.
Still, my pick for Song of the Fall is the horn-laden “Stay Young.” There is certainly plenty of Sheff’s characteristic melancholy (“I said that when you met me I was just dying / I said it to no one / I said it in silence”), but the chorus redirects it to a positive place. “Stay young,” Sheff advises, “Don’t get tough / Don’t get on with it.” This is as uplifting as “The Saddest Band in Texas” is going to get.
The rest of the album is great as well. Tracks like “On a Balcony,” “Pink-Slips,” and “All the Time Every Day” all pack in a lot of emotion and energy. The Silver Gymnasium isn’t about Sheff’s “nine years down in Texas,” but it probably wouldn’t have happened without them. It’s something all us transplants can look up to.
– Carter Delloro