Consistency can be a mixed blessing for any artist, but that’s especially true in indie-rock, where new sounds and next big things have always had the advantage over old, dependable standbys. It was understandable, then, why after five solid albums, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff saw the need to shake things up on the band’s last record, 2011’s I Am Very Far. A busy, blustery subversion of the band’s usually ornate folk-rock, it was the first Okkervil River record self-produced by Sheff, and, not coincidentally, also the first that seemed more concerned with sonics than songs.
Sheff must have purged the desire to experiment from his system, because Okkervil River’s newest, The Silver Gymnasium, returns the reins to a proper producer (John Agnello, Dinosaur Jr.’s go-to guy) and the band to the brisk, toe-tapping rock that’s always fit it best. Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg even swings by to lend his unmistakable backing bellows to five songs, just for old times’ sake. All that makes it easy to write off The Silver Gymnasium as another Okkervil River album that sounds exactly like an Okkervil River album, but it’s no worse for that familiarity. Unlike the labored Very Far, this time the songs seem to pour out of Sheff, fueling the band’s jauntiest, peppiest record since 2007’s The Stage Names.
Like most of its predecessors, this Okkervil LP has a theme. Sheff set the record in the mid-’80s in Meriden, New Hampshire, his small childhood town. That may sound like a recipe for cloying nostalgia, but Sheff’s songwriting is consistently lively and in the moment, and aside from a few references to VCRs and Atari, he avoids painting the era with broad, Wedding Singer-style kitsch. Instead, the album evokes the period through small, expressive production shifts. Agnello—who cut his teeth in the ’80s engineering Cyndi Lauper and John Cougar Mellencamp records before reinventing himself as an indie-rock producer—models the album after the bright polish of Born In The U.S.A. and other blockbusters of the day. Chipper “Glory Days” synths run through the delirious poppy “Down Down The Deep River,” while crisp horns lend “On A Balcony” an E-Street-esque punch. Even the limber, light funk of “Stay Young” feels like a subtle nod to an era when, encouraged by their new reach on MTV, previously buttoned-up artists popped their collars and cut loose a little bit. Another band might have played up those ’80s accents as a gimmick, but The Silver Gymnasium isn’t interested in those kinds of extremes. It’s the work of a band that’s learned it doesn’t need to completely reinvent the wheel in order to keep things fresh.