Friday, November 22, 2013

The Silver Gymnasium: Digging Deeper

Read this blog and this blog before you read this blog.

Go to to try the interactive map for yourself

So I've just been listening to Okkervil River's interactive Meriden map, and it was really a rather lovely experience. Will Shelf narrates you around his hometown and shares various childhood memories while an instrumental version of Lido Pier Suicide Car plays in the background. At the end, a box pops up and pretty much tells you that the new album is inspired by Sheff's memories of his hometown. Mind you, I'm pretty sure that none of the stories he tells actually appear on The Silver Gymnasium; I don't remember anything about murdering frogs or climbing trees to find Michael Jackson on the lyric sheet.

Which perhaps means that the map stories are an appendix to the album proper, and all of Sheff's best Meriden stories are tucked away in the songs themselves. On Monday, I thought that The Silver Gymnasium was about a journey from A to B; by Wednesday, I was wondering if points A and B were actually birth and death, the album a chronicle of an entire life. Now I just think it's about looking back, and while the album is subtitled 'A Pageant of New England', I don't think it's really about the place where Will Sheff grew up; Meriden is just an archetypal small hometown, a canvas on which to splatter nostalgic reminisces, and the listener can swap it for their own hometown if they like.

So that, one working week later, is what The Silver Gymnasium is about. One thing I haven't mentioned, though, is the title, largely because I had no idea what it referred to. Of course, I'm allowed to use the internet now, and the album's Wikipedia page handily informs me that the title "is taken from the Charles Lewis Silver Memorial Gymnasium found in Meriden's Kimball Union Academy, the boarding school which Sheff attended." Fittingly, the title is just another of Will Sheff's Meriden Memories (perhaps that would have been a better title? Perhaps not.)

All that's left to do now is clear up a few details:
  • Lido Pier is (seemingly) a reference to The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. A car is pulled out of "the surf off Lido Pier" and they find a dead chauffeur inside. According to this blog, even Chandler himself never really worked out who killed him. I'm still none the wise as to where Lido Pier is, because all the other search results for 'lido pier' are related to the Okkervil River song.

  • Pink-Slips are not, as I guessed on Monday, permission letters for school trips. They are actually notices that employees receive when they get the sack, kind of like the P45 in Britain. This makes a lot more sense in the context of the song.

  • I can't be certain that the title of Black Nemo is really a reference to Little Nemo, but his Wikipedia page will tell you all about him if you're curious.

  • I've still no idea who Frankie is, although a commenter on SongMeanings suggests of Down Down the Deep River that "it's about the singer remembering his childhood best friend's death". If Frankie is that best friend, it would certainly explain this line in Walking Without Frankie: "I last saw you, Frankie, walking through that New Hampshire dew. And when you shot five thousand feet up into the grey sky, what could I do?"

  • Something I realised: you know how, on Monday, I remarked that Down Down the Deep River's intro sounded very eighties? Well, Will Sheff was born in 1976, so the events about which he reminisces in these songs probably took place in the 1980s. Perhaps that intro and the synthy sound of Stay Young (see video above) were deliberate homages to the music of his childhood?

  • Another SongMeanings commenter highlights the last line of It Was My Season ("Oh, Jason, I know") and points out that the forbidden romance that the song describes is probably between two men, which may account for why it's forbidden.
So that's everything I managed to ascertain about The Silver Gymnasium in the space of five days. I don't think I could have chosen an album more laden with supplementary material; there's a whole ream of text on the CD sleeve that I didn't bother to analyse, and while I'm pleased that I found the interactive map (seriously, try it now), I didn't get around to trying the fugging video game. That's a whole other blog for a whole other time.

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