If the name of a band gives you a hint of its influence or direction, the name “Okkervil River” sure gives you an interesting first impression; the name comes from a short story by the great- grandniece of Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina), Tatyana Tolstaya called “Okkervil River.”
According to NPR’s David Dye, the story “follows the plight of a middle-aged bureaucrat and his obsession with an obscure singer. When the vocalist turns out to be a timeworn shell of her former self, the story becomes a meditation on how art stands apart from those who create it.”
It’s no wonder that Okkervil River is often described as “literary” and “bookish.”
The introspection caused by Tolstaya’s story brings up an interesting concept though, because Okkervil River’s newest album, The Silver Gymnasium, is an 11-song ode to the small town of Meriden, New Hampshire, where front man Will Sheff grew up. The title even refers to the gym in his high school. How is something so autobiographical supposed to relate to an audience that doesn’t relate to a specific time or place?
As you listen to the album, it becomes pretty obvious that it is a lot about nostalgia. There’s plenty imagery of Walkmans, Atari, VCRs, cassette tapes, and lying awake talking in a tent. In one interview, Sheff says that he uses specificity to allow people to identify more with the music. And who doesn’t relate to Atari?
Okay, well most of us actually in college right now didn’t exactly grow up with Ataris, and maybe others never got into video games. I think the point with it though, is that we all have those things that do identify a time and place in our lives. Somehow Sheff has found a way to make his listeners adopt specific things about his experience growing up as part of our own experience. The song "Down Down The Deep River" gives us an opportunity to take a look at this:
We lie awake at night in a tent and I say,
Tell me about your uncle and his friend
because they seem like very bad men.
Well we oughtta keep away from them.
Bend in the road back there, we saw the place to go.
Tell me 'bout the greatest show or the greatest movie you know
or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio.
Play it again and again it cuts off at the ending though.
Tell me I'm always gonna be your best friend.
Now you said it one time, why don't you say it again?
All the way down the line to where the telephone ends
come on and shout it on down the wire.
And it's not all right.
It's not even close to all right.
Nostalgia can be dangerous because we hear a certain song or sound and associate it with a certain time, but sometimes, like a rat conditioned to push a button for more food, we forget what the artist really meant in the song. Okkervil River seems to recognize the power of nostalgia, but turns it a way from a lab-rat, “push here to feel good” mentality. One of the strengths of Sheff’s nostalgia in this album is the juxtaposition of darker, heavier lyrics with a upbeat and catchy musical theme.
Too often, we look back on parts of our life and remember them specifically as either hard or fun, bad or good. I often think of middle school as a time of turmoil and confusion, but how often do I take the time to remember the times where I just sat and laughed?
The band started a Kickstarter in December 2013 to fund a short film (named after the song “Down Down The Deep River”) based in the town Sheff grew up in. Drawing from the science fiction and fantasy adventure films of the 80s (like The Goonies and E.T.), it depicts growing up in a small town during that time period. The clothes, toys, household items, and every thing else about the setting are actually from the 80s. It’s nostalgic, yes, but it’s also real.
Maybe The Silver Gymnasium and Down Down The Deep River’s purpose is to bring us to something real and powerful. It’s a great example of how nostalgia can be used at it’s best; it gives us a chance to look at life as a whole, learning from and celebrating both the good and bad of the past, all while living in the present and looking towards the future.
Okkervil River formed in Austin, Texas in 1998 when high-school friends Will Sheff and Seth Warren reunited after college and joined Zachary Thomas, releasing their first album, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, in 2002. Since then, the band has released seven albums and now consists of six members: Will Sheff remains, joined by Lauren Gurgiolo, Justin Sherburn, Cully Symington, Patrick Pestorius, and Michael St. Clair.
~ Kendra Kamp