Image from stereogum.com
On Monday, I tried to figure out the meaning behind Okkervil River's new album, The Silver Gymnasium, simply by listening to it all the way through. My theories were speculative rather than definitive - at first, I thought it was all about some kind of journey, a travelling album, but having had another listen, I now wonder if it's more about life in general, and our 'journey' from youth to maturity. Pretty deep, right?
Anyway, today I'm going to take a look at the album's packaging: the liner notes, the lyric sheet, and any information printed on the CD sleeve. Let's see if it helps...
The first big clue is on the back of the album. This is printed just above the track list:
- GUIDE -
THE SILVER GYMNASIUM
"A Pageant of New England"
NEW HAMPSHIRE - LIVE FREE OR DIE
This doesn't necessary change anything, but in mentioning New Hampshire (and New England as a whole) it does give us a setting, a backdrop against which the action can unfold. Underneath the track list is a sort of map key, showing dirt roads, paved roads, waterways, and various species of animal and plant. It's not entirely clear what it all signifies, but it certainly doesn't harm my travelling hypothesis.
Inside the sleeve is a quote from Marion V. Cuthbert (1896-1989):
I told my child
God could make worlds.
Delight was a fountain in his eyes.
Remembering his own secret world
Which he might turn to in any wakeful hour
Or enter in a dream...
He, himself, was four,going on five,
And after that would be six.
The last part of this quotation casts an ominous growing-up shadow on the initial description of childlike fantasy; perhaps my pretentious "youth to maturity" theory might actually have been correct.
Anyway, let's dive into the lyric sheet, and see if my ears missed anything important on Monday. It Was My Season is certainly a youthful opener, with the narrator sounding like he's in the prime of his life ("Step out of your trailer and into this dark! It's warm and it's breathing, and it's our season.") But there's also the hint of less pleasant things, the first taste of adult life and its inevitable sadnesses, perhaps: "I called a friend, my world at end, my words unwound. I said, 'It's crashing down around our heads. We're dumb. We're dead. Shut up about it now.'"
On a Balcony reads like a realisation that the bad side of life can actually be kind of fun. Lines like "baby's not a wreck on the wayside yet, although she stuck out her neck to see how dark she could take it" suggest a certain drugginess, pushing oneself to the limit to find out how far you can go. This, perhaps, is what enjoyment becomes once the childish fantasies have gone.
Yikes, I'm depressing myself. Down Down the Deep River still seems to be more or less what I initially saw it as - the beginning of a big journey - except that journey is now life itself. "Say you still see it. Say you remember. Are we going down the deep river?" Things are changing, everything is going...uh, down the deep river, and while some things remain (like the narrator's father, for instance, who is "not going anywhere"), that doesn't change the fact that "it's scary, baby."
I'm beginning to suspect that Pink-Slips aren't precisely what I thought they were, but this song does highlight a wonderful contradiction. Sticking with the 'journey through life' theory, this is around the point where people start getting wistful and feeling nostalgic about their earlier years. But, to quote from the lyric sheet: "This wish to just go back...when I know I wasn't ever happy! Show me my best memory - it's probably super crappy" The grass is always greener, etc.
(Side note: I love it when lyrics are laid out like this, with proper punctuation and everything. It's like reading a novel rather than scanning the words to a song.)
Lido Pier Suicide Car might be an account of a failed suicide attempt - "When he catches me in freezing seas, he'll lead me into land...I just have to take that hand...can you hear the shouting, out there beyond the boundary? Some distant voice is sounding..." Beyond that, I'm not really sure; I'll maybe come back to this one on Friday, when I'll be allowed to Google the significane of Lido Pier.
Okay, this track-by-track approach is taking longer than I thought (surely nobody is still reading by this point?), so I'm going to skip to All the Time Every Day, which is presented on the lyric sheet in a question/answer format:
"Q: Do you stop and stare, struck dumb, hands shaking, washed by this constant panicked wishing for what's lost? As you're standing on some curb, waiting to cross, would you say you feel like some weak leaf, wind-turned and tossed?
A: All the time. Every day. Every day, all the time. All the time. Every day, every day."
Things are definitely getting older by this point, and my previous guess about "boredom, numbness, and a lack of feeling" may have been less accurate than simply saying that the narrator is frail and scared of everything at this stage.
The title of Black Nemo refers, I think, to some kind of fairy tale about a boy who has a big adventure in the land of dreams. Given the last few lines of this song - "I know you think you miss him. I know you think you knew him, but you were passing through him. Light as air he's leaving. There...he's gone." - it seems like a life is ending, but there's also a kind of regression. The song starts with a line about "Meriden months stuck in Indian summers", and a hazy, half-remembered sort of atmosphere permeates the entire song. The narrator, I think, has died, and in his last moments he returns to the memories and the fantasies he had as a child.
Speaking of Meriden, I was rather surprised by what I found when I turned the lyric sheet over:
Taken from TwentyFourBit
This is a map of Meriden, New Hampshire, and it seems like the one that comes with the CD is just a paper version of a fully-interactive map that the band created to go with the album. You can't really see it in that picture, but one of the points is marked 'Where I last saw Frankie' (a name that surprisingly doesn't appear elsewhere on the lyric sheet, outside of Walking Without Frankie).
Everything so far has just been guesswork. On Friday, I'm giving myself free rein to explore the internet and find out everything and anything I can about The Silver Gymnasium; I'm pretty sure that my first stop will be that interactive map. Come back on Friday to find out what it's really all about.
Click here for the final third of my Silver Gymnasium trilogy.
Click here for the final third of my Silver Gymnasium trilogy.