Okkervil River’s ‘black sheep boy’ cheers up

Okkervil River plays a sold-out show at Philly’s Union Transfer on March 28, followed by a sold-out show in Cambridge, MA at The Sinclair March 29. (Credit: Ben Sklar)
Okkervil River plays a sold-out show at New York’s Union Transfer on March 28, followed by a sold-out show in Cambridge, MA at The Sinclair March 29. (Ben Sklar)

For Okkervil River singer/songwriter Will Sheff, the band’s seventh album, “The Silver Gymnasium,” was a chance to chase away the gloom.

“To some extent I was kind of hoping to translate a more fun sound,” says Sheff. “I wanted it to be an embracing, friendly rock ‘n’ roll record, and not rock ‘n’ roll in an upsetting, aggressive, punk rock way. This album was more rock ‘n’ roll in that good-times type of way.”

The album is undoubtedly a musical realignment for Okkervil River, whose most well-received album, 2005’s “Black Sheep Boy,” was both dramatic and dark.

“I love being able to make these jarring, threatening rock ‘n’ roll songs, and then make a record like this that’s fun and happier rock,” says Sheff. “Then I can move onto the next thing. I like that a lot more than feeling trapped in a certain style.”

The instrumentation slightly gestures to the period in which “The Silver Gymnasium” is set. Synth accents and horns, perhaps to reflect the music Sheff would have heard on the radio growing up in the ’80s, make tracks like “Walking Without Frankie” and “On a Balcony,” some of the most accessible sounding rock that the band has produced yet.

Maybe that’s because he’s focusing on something everyone can relate to: childhood. Though he has briefly mined this territory before, on this album maps the terrain of his own life growing up in New Hampshire.

“I’m usually uncomfortable talking about my own personal stories and private thoughts,” says Sheff. “But when I was writing this album I felt that in order for it not to sound generic, I had to be direct and honest with people and show where I was coming from.”

‘Silver’ linings

Will Sheff’s writing comes less from a participant’s viewpoint in these stories and more from an observer’s position, exposing the wonders and trials of growing up, and ultimately discovering an underlying meaning of his childhood that others could relate to.

“The main reason I wrote ‘Silver Gymnasium’ was to try and write universally about being a kid and getting older, the way that culture kind of influences your imagination growing up, and why it is we feel nostalgia. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to draw attention to my own story. And I think that if I had written about that, instead of being universal, it might just end up being sterile or kind of boring.”



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