Okkervil River: "It Was My Season"

from The Silver Gymnasium (ATO; 2013)

By Robin Smith | 16 July 2013

“It Was My Season” is a sweet rip in the space-time continuum: nostalgic, but not self-satisfyingly so. This isn’t fond remembrance for a time you weren’t there for. Instead, it introduces the past to a world it can live in again, for someone else, like sending a box of your old photos to a loved one with a note saying “for you.” Of course, Will Sheff has a better analogy than mine: he described The Silver Gymnasium, a musical history of his time growing up in a small New Hampshire town, as like “finding an action figure in the woods.” It’s a memory, but one he passes on, the kind of adventure story that can only come to life from one person to another: the teenager who dropped the toy, done with it forever, and the kid who picked it up for a new beginning. That’s what I call a personal record, because who else could understand what you discover right there, right then?

“It Was My Season” is awash with this very acute nostalgia. It gives every little detail of what it was to be a kid in a small-town, your best love story five minutes down the road. Sheff remembers waiting for adults to get out of the house so his adventures could begin: “We’ll meet on the weekends,” he promises, like a secret; “Your dad won’t be home.” But he also remembers what adulthood looked like from that end, and how the future seemed to lie beyond his town’s protective blanket. It couldn’t touch him: “They say I’ll go to college / And you will stay home / And watch while I’m leaving,” he sings, safe in his pretending. The detail is what’s impressive: it isn’t a fragment of this hometown you experience, but Sheff’s entire interaction with it. Look at the map band artist William Schaff drew based on The Silver Gymnasium and you can see every corner of this place, illuminated in all the seasons it endured. Listen to this song, and you hear Sheff living in it, through the moments that passed time and the ones that had to face it. It’s nostalgia, and it’s touching at that, but it’s a scholar’s nostalgia: Sheff the songwriter-journalist, turning from Tim Hardin and Bruce Wayne Campbell to his own baptisms of fire.

The bright, twinkling piano riff that predicates the song premieres a different time, as if Sheff wanted to make this sound like the late 1980s, but in a place without a tick for culture, where no trends influenced it more than the crooked piano in the living room. As such, it’s a genuinely warm piece of piano rock, with an abundance of echoing, placating chords that fill in Sheff’s belated pleas: “Stop the bleeding / When it’s my season.” The song becomes flushed with colour, its string arrangements sounding tenderly artificial at first—corny, like playing around with options on a decade-old keyboard—but resonating more and more as Sheff digs into his history and finds warm thoughts for the worst moments: “When I look back on it now / Remember how mixed up I got / Before they got me sorted out.” It culminates with a perfectly executed use of Okkervil River’s quiet-to-loud dynamic, backing vocals layered under Sheff’s suddenly booming voice. It’s communal in the same way many Okkervil River songs become so: a first-person perspective that gets its own, emphasizing fanfare. And rightly so, as “It Was My Season” is the beginning of Sheff’s story.

Sheff has said so many great things about The Silver Gymnasium, and while I think the action figure metaphor is the best way to think about “It Was My Season”—an opener that invites you into its world as if you’re the most important person in it—I’m taken by something more internal he’s described. He employed John Agnello to produce the album, citing his “old-fashioned” style and brief appearances on records by Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. The result is rock ‘n’ roll wish fulfillment: “He was actually present while they were making a lot of the music that inspired the kid version of me to want to be a musician and that inspired The Silver Gymnasium in general.” This is Sheff’s memoir, finally, twenty years on. Nostalgia isn’t just a fond memory; it’s growing up knowing you’d remember it like this.

► “It Was My Season”