The Antlers // Hospice (2009)

The story is not unfamiliar. Young, male, Caucasian singer-songwriter secludes himself for months on end with the intention of suffering for his art. I suppose the idea is that seclusion breeds intimacy in certain forms of artistic expression, and there’s something admirable about a one-man-band approach, particularly in rock and alternative music. This may or may not have been the motivation of Peter Silberman, lead vocalist and songwriter of The Antlers, and for a few years, the band’s sole member. When Silberman finally settled on a concept, he found he needed assistance with additional instrumentation. He found it in Darby Cicci (bass, keyboard) and Michael Lerner (drums), and the two have stuck on to this day. But you’ve heard all of this before, right? These tropes are tried and true. Hell, Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album all by his lonesome and that went much, much better than expected. What gives? When does a method of songwriting stop being inventive and start to become a gimmick? Enter Hospice, a brash, immediate, and painfully personal record about death and life, struggle and reprieve, and just about every human emotion contained therein.

Following one’s first listen, one might be surprised to find Hospice is a work of fiction. Silberman crafts an incredibly small universe with his lyrics and the music seems to react to his storytelling. The story describes a relationship between a male hospice worker and a female patient with terminal bone cancer. Throughout the course of her treatment, the two fall in love, and soon must confront the reality of their relationship and it’s inevitable end. Silberman has described the album as being about an emotionally abusive relationship and the depression that followed. The fiction Silberman crafts in his songwriting reflects his life experience in that the end is an inevitability. Sure, the knowledge of that inevitability can be buried or drawn-out as long as possible, but it will not continue forever. The issue will keep showing it’s face; eventually, something has to give.

Hospice opens with “Prologue,” providing us with a sonic introduction to the album. “Prologue” starts at barely a whisper, building to a very quick crescendo. The music seems to roam about, not quite sure where to settle; long stretches of rambling sound are broken only by somber piano chords and Silberman’s voice, which seems to echo in from somewhere far off. This is a record that uses Silberman’s light, sweet vocalizations as it’s own instrument, adding texture to each song. The aimless sound of “Prologue” diminishes, leading right into “Kettering,” the true beginning of the story. The album’s first words are delivered with a hesitant delicacy: “I wish that I had known in that first minute we met/The unpayable debt that I owed you.” Halfway through, the song erupts, all drums and loud grinding guitars and distant, impersonal vocals. Hospice functions less like a storybook and more like a film—emotions play out in flashes of unhinged sound, rising and falling and crashing together. The songs here feel both carefully controlled and somewhat improvisational. It forces one to be an active listener, something few albums have the ability to do.

It’s almost impossible to properly describe the anguish of Hospice. It’s what makes the album so affecting, this constant sense of dread and reflect, dread and reflect, repeat. No song better captures this helplessness than “Atrophy.” At nearly eight minutes long, the lyrics are spare and careful, with Silberman describing the inherent trouble of maintaining a healthy relationship when one individual is confined to a hospital bed: “I’ve been living in bed because now you tell me to sleep/I’ve been hiding my voice and my face and you decide when I eat/In your dreams I’m a criminal, horrible, sleeping around/While you’re awake, I’m impossible, constantly letting you down.” The melody of the song fades at the halfway point, overtaken by a rhythmic buzzing and chirping that collapses into a drone. The drone melts into the peaceful sound of wind-chimes, soothing us from the friction of before. One is given ample time to breathe, get lost in the moment… and back comes the guitar, simple and direct. The hospice worker has witnessed his girlfriend’s atrophy and he is lost, hopeless: “Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this/She’s screaming, expiring and I’m her only witness/I’m freezing, infected, and rigid in that room inside her/No one’s gonna come as long as I lay still in bed beside her.”

Hospice contains numerous references to Sylvia Plath, including a direct connection through the third track, “Sylvia.” Plath was a pioneer of confessional poetry, poetry “of the personal,” which very often focused on extremely traumatic, truthful events and conditions of the human psyche; in Plath’s case, her battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, eventually culminating in her own suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Silberman alludes to Plath periodically, with Hospice acting as a meditation on mortality. The album, at times, fixates on guilt and death in an almost obsessive manner—so obsessive it becomes beautiful. Tragic, but beautiful.

Silberman always intended for Hospice to be listened to from start to finish, carefully crafting the flow of his story to move seamlessly from track to track. But there are certain tracks that remain standouts, especially the album’s centerpiece, “Bear,” which contains some of the most earnest and, believe it or not, humorous lines in the album (“All the while I know we’re fucked/And not getting un-fucked soon”). The track, which serves as a set-piece for a 21st birthday, is strangely joyful and carefree, containing little or none of the desperation that consumes the whole of the album. It captures that brief glimmer of hope we seek out in times of tragedy, how when life is down and hope seems exhausted, we would give anything for a few moments of pure, unadulterated joy. “Two” is another standout. The track sees all the conflict of the previous half-hour come to a head, while reminding the listener that this woman is indeed slowly dying: “87 pounds and this all bears repeating.” That line so perfectly encapsulates the dread of Hospice, a detail so intensely personal that one can’t help but relate to it. Silberman’s songs so delicately balance that in-between, that contrast of life and death, joy and grief, peace and pain.

Hospice is an album about death, but it would be inaccurate to describe it as being only about death. It is an album that details the complexities of romantic relationships, the emotional damage people can cause to one another, the obstacle of finding happiness in the face of inescapable tragedy, and ultimately, the importance of living as hard, honest, and fearless as possible. That’s where Hospice lives, in that little space between pain and peace, grief and joy, death and life.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Kettering,” “Atrophy,” “Bear,” “Two,” “Wake,”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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