Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Making art from coming of age in small-town America

Robin Hilton reviews Okkervil River's new album, The Silver Gymnasium, on NPR today, and the piece begins like this:
I grew up in a town of about 6,000 people in rural Kansas back in the '70s and '80s. I've never romanticized it much, though it was certainly a simpler time and, for better or worse, it's where I learned to make some sense of my life. The world you inhabit when you come of age in your teen years has a way of digging its claws in you. As the years pass, no matter how far you try to get away from it, it stays with you. The people, the places, the sounds and even the smells become a part of your DNA.
That second sentence--to track Hilton's physiological metaphor--grabbed me by the throat. (A similar sentiment is expressed by an Appalachian writer here).  As I have aged and become a parent, I have seen just how deeply embedded those claws are.  Those claws are manifest in my writing about my hometown, which I do a lot--here.  I rationalize recording even the mundane by saying I am looking for trends relevant to my scholarly work, but I know the exercise is about more than that.  

Today's NPR review is accompanied by this multi-media feature, that includes a map of Meriden, New Hampshire, the home town of Okkervil River's Will Sheff.  It also features photos of Meriden, Sheff, and his family, along with some of Sheff's reflections from his childhood years, when he dreamt of running away from his parents but got only as far as a tree top he climbed.  

A few days ago, NPR did this story on The Silver Gymnasium, including this lede, which echoes some of the same themes as today's story and feature.  
It's human nature to romanticize a specific time and place in the past — a moment when everything felt just right, or opportunities were laid out like a banquet. For Okkervil River's Will Sheff, it's been impossible to let go of Meriden, N.H., circa 1986: That tiny town is where he spent his childhood (he turned 10 that summer) and where his parents taught at an area boarding school. Meriden is where Sheff's visions of youth and innocence reside, even as he's gone on to live in Austin and Brooklyn, and to tour the world. 
Sheff sets Okkervil River's seventh album, The Silver Gymnasium, square in the heart of his own childhood; in the specific spot that produced his most sepia-toned memories. As such, the record captures not only his own autobiographical details, but also musical cues from the era.
P.S.  On August 30, the New York Times ran this feature on the new Okkervil River album.  Jonathan Meiburg, an early member of Okkervil River who participated in making The Silver Gymnasium calls the project “an elaborate and stylized exercise in nostalgia.”

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