Over the past six months, bloggers have been falling over their online personas praising the depth of feeling and haunting singularity of vision that characterizes Hospice, the first major offering from Brooklyn’s the Antlers. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you must have a real job or a life. Good for you.
The story of the album’s genesis — how it’s the product of months of self-imposed isolation on the part of young songwriter Peter Silberman, brought on by a soul-shaking personal event that he has only referred to obliquely in interviews — has been told many times, in as much detail as Silberman will allow. It’s not surprising that journalists and readers are so interested in hearing it; Hospice is the kind of staggering work that doesn’t just win fans, but changes lives. Silberman’s sorrow-soaked narrative pulsates with genuine, complex human pain. He cites In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as a major influence, and he’s one of the few Neutral Milk Hotel acolytes to produce something that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with that seminal work.
Silberman has also said Hospice is about “the extent to which guilt can lead us to betray ourselves.” The thematic hook is the strained relationship between an abusive dying person and his (or her?) steadfast lover/caretaker, who together are locked in a heart-twisting back-and-forth that lasts until the final curtain falls. Silberman’s lyrics abstract the story in typical young-poet fashion, but he has a knack for turning a wicked phrase from time to time (“All the while I’ll know we’re fucked and not getting unfucked soon” from “Bear” is a particularly memorable moment).
Silberman originally wrote these songs in his bedroom, later recruiting guest musicians Darby Cicci (guitars and synths) and Michael Lerner (drums) to help him flesh out the sound. Cicci and Lerner eventually became full-on members of the Antlers, and it’s easy to see why. Cicci’s atmospherics range from hauntingly beautiful to kind of nauseating, and are essential to the Antlers’ queasily cinematic sound. Lerner’s room-shaking drums anchor a band that otherwise might float off into the ether.
It’s ballsy, to say the least, to make a concept album in the digital download age. Hospice throws a couple of bones to the cherry-picking downloader — the aforementioned “Bear” has a rollicking chorus that could almost be mistaken for upbeat; after a languorous opening, “Sylvia” explodes into a Walkmen-esque indie anthem. But these songs are stripped of some of their power when they stand alone, which is an indication of the album’s success. Hospice is a fully-realized and fully-functional concept album, and, get this: it was produced by and for members of a generation who, according to know-it-all marketing types, would rather throw their PlayStation3’s into a river than listen to (egads!) a WHOLE album. Hospice is evidence that the art form (unlike the unlucky character on this articulation of it) isn’t on its deathbed.