‘The Silver Gymnasium,’ which landed Sept. 3, is a markedly light entry in the otherwise brooding — sometimes almost manic — Okkervil River catalog. However, like the band’s other releases (especially those subsequent to 2005’s ‘Black Sheep Boy’), ‘Gymnasium’ is a tightly crafted record notable for frontman Will Sheff’s fleshed-out characters and vivid storytelling. Sheff’s super-literate songwriting style is completely his own, and as he sings with dramatic peaks and valleys, his song structures put the lyrics at the forefront. In honor of ‘The Silver Gymnasium,’ we’re taking a look at the 10 Best Okkervil River lyrics.
‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex’
“During the fight / I said, ‘Yeah right’ / When you insisted that I visit, that you’d write”
On both ‘The Stand Ins’ and its 2007 predecessor, ‘The Stage Names,’ Sheff dissected the emptiness of a pop-culture-obsessed society by penning songs about lying pop singers and “mid-level” bands. In ‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex,’ the speaker says a bitter farewell to a now-famous ex-girlfriend. Sheff has the ability to be both brainy and accessible in his writing, sometimes within the same song. However, this particular line demonstrates the latter, as he communicates false promises made during a breakup with ease and stark straightforwardness.
“And I think that I know the bitter dismay / Of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day / When she turned him away to remember some knave / Who once gave just one rose, one day, years ago”
‘A Stone,’ on the other hand, is one of Sheff’s more verbose moments. The singer tells a story of a woman who romanticizes something she can't have, and that probably only barely existed to begin with. All the while, she dismisses someone who’s been there all along. What’s perhaps more astonishing than the message itself is how Sheff gets there. He builds the listener up for the conclusion (quoted above), taking the recurring image of a lifeless, unfeeling stone and singing, “And I think I believe that if stones could dream / They’d dream of being laid side-by-side, piece-by-piece / And turned into a castle for some towering queen / They’re unable to know.”
“Look, though, I don’t know what notes you want to hear played / I can’t think what lines you’d like me to sing or say, and I’m not sure what subjects you want mentioned / So pause and add your intentions”
Perhaps it’s hypocritical, or at the very least ironic, to dissect Sheff’s lyrics, as he asks listeners to add their own intentions to what they hear in ‘The Latest Toughs,’ so we’ll try to be brief. Before taking a critical eye to celebrity adoration in ‘The Stage Names’ and ‘The Stand Ins,' the Okkervil River singer was already making similar observations on ‘Black Sheep Boy.’ By the conclusion of the song, Sheff utterly dismantles the notion that you make a connection with artists you listen to or see on a screen: “You’d like to love a star who’d throw you down below the ground he thinks you are.”
‘Down Down the Deep River’
“He said, ‘Oh, son, I saw you get knocked down / And I ran out, I bet your head was spinning / With that bright pain you stunned / When you’ve only just begun to be only just beginning. / Tossed in the viper pit, all those feelings and fears / And all that difficult shit in all those tender years’”
While ‘The Silver Gymnasium’ has a decidedly lighter tone than previous albums, the songs explore both the hope and the fearfulness of childhood. In this line, the speaker is comforted by his father, who acknowledges the uncertainty of youth. It's driven home by the track’s recurring line, “But it’s not all right. It’s not even close to all right.”
“I go home, take off clothes / Smoke a bowl, watch a whole TV movie / I was supposed to be writing / The most beautiful poems / And completely revealing / Divine mysteries up close / I can’t say that I’m feeling / All that much at all / At 27 years old”
‘On Tour With Zykos’ is another Okkervil River song examining the life of touring musicians and their relationships with their audience. It carries this line, in which Sheff bleakly describes a feeling many young adults can relate to: not quite meeting the expectations you've held for yourself.
“Let’s hit the limit of loss over lover’s arms / No, let’s exceed it”
On this tune from ‘The Stage Names,’ Sheff depicts the hollowness of pop-culture obsession by offering up a bunch of empty references to songs (Nena’s ‘99 Luftballons’ and Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways to Leave Your Love,’ to name a couple) by simply adding one to their titles. However, it’s a message of reckless hope Sheff sings in the song’s closing lines. And just in case you weren’t convinced of how deep Okkervil River’s concepts go, the notion of being someone’s plus-one also appears in ‘A Girl In Port.’
“I wouldn’t be able to bear the way you cannot love me / It’s much easier for me to make a monster out of you”
With their 2005 EP ‘Overboard & Down,’ Okkervil River delivered a live recording of ‘Westfall’ and a cover of Big Star’s ‘O, Dana,’ but that doesn’t mean the five-track record is without impactful original material. Case in point: ‘Love to a Monster.’ Sheff gets to the point immediately, saying that it’s easier to demonize a former love than it is to find “friendship and understanding.”
“I lie back on my pillow / And ask what her husband is like / And she says, ‘I smile polite / And I tip and tithe / And I see the sights with a well-trained eye / But I calmly cry / Because I’m too much mine without him’”
While the lyrics found on 2011’s ‘I Am Very Far’ were perhaps more enigmatic than on Okkervil River’s other albums, they remained plenty impressive. Here, the speaker’s lover describes her marriage as being devoid of emotion, but she's nonetheless scared of being without her husband. Perhaps it can be reduced to a fear of loneliness, but there’s something in Sheff’s phrasing (“I’m too much mine without him”) that makes it so much more.
“But my mouth fills with more panic than prayer / And my skull fills with more color than care / And my heart fills with love, with too much love to bear / And I know that I’ll stay, and that she’ll always be there / My hands sunk in cold sand / Sea-weed strung through her hair”
This single, which preceded ‘I Am Very Far,’ contains some of Sheff’s loveliest writing to date. The expansive seafaring tale ends with the song’s protagonist lost at sea, but rather than praying for rescue, he’s fearful of losing his newfound love. Sheff concludes the tune with triumphant “la, la, las,” as the speaker is resolved in knowing they’ll both be lost at sea.
“And with your body next to me, its sleepy sighing / Sounds like waves upon a sea too far to reach / But I’ll gather up my men and try to sail on it again / And we’ll walk and quietly talk all through the country of your skin / Made up of pieces of the places that you’ve dreamed and that you’ve been / And we will sleep outside in tents upon this unfamiliar land / And in the morning we’ll awake / Yeah, as a foreign dawning breaks / My men and I will all awake / Let’s try again”
The final track on ‘Down the River of Golden Dreams’ contains Okkervil River’s best lyrics. It's also got some of Sheff's wordiest writing, but he offers a brilliant simile about attempting to break barriers in order to forge closeness with a lover. As a result, Sheff achieves a grandness in his lyrics that is truly astounding.