The Antlers dive into new, but not unfamiliar, waters on this worthy concept EP.
Since his band's 2009 breakthrough, Hospice, Peter Silberman has put the Antlers through their conceptual paces. He risked maudlin overstatement making terminal cancer the central metaphor behind that album's treatment of fading love and mortality, and ended up with a work of surprising eloquence. The follow-up, 2011's Burst Apart wasn't hung on a single narrative or figurative hook, but it was still a far more unified work than many seemed to notice. Relationships disintegrated and weathered strain over recurring images of hounds, broken wings, missing teeth. The Antlers' new four-song EP, Undersea, departs somewhat from the emotional turmoil of their recent output, but holds tightly to the idea that each release is more than just a collection of new songs, but rather a unified whole.
Like Hospice, Undersea wears its through-line on its title. Even if three of these four songs weren't heavy on water imagery, you can't miss the aquatic sound of the guitars and languid tempos. Silberman has also turned to a slightly more elliptical lyrical style that uses just a few powerful images per song, leaving his exact subject matter and the emotional stakes fluid and impressionistic. This isn't a groundbreaking artistic coup, of course. Formalist-minded folks from James Joyce to Radiohead have been putting dream logic into watery terms for years. But the conceit rings true, and the Antlers immerse themselves in this oceanic dreaminess with skill and subtlety.
Speaking of Radiohead, Undersea does take some notable cues from their work. At the very least, it seems Silberman's been reading the Yorke book of decontextualized actions and vague apocalypses. "The planet drowns in a hundred days / Dissolving into a million pieces in a billion places," Silberman sings on the deceptively soothing "Drift Dive". On "Crest", he warns that "they wanna sink and maroon you" over a gently dragged swing. The similarity is most striking on the EP's great eight-and-a-half-minute centerpiece, "Endless Ladder". It doesn't simply evoke the In Rainbows-era "Up On the Ladder" in title. The stylistic touches -- a superficial resemblance to "Subterranean Homesick Alien" in the guitar and basslines, whirring electronic background noise, and obscure, science-fiction-y fatalism ("If you receive a letter in 2012 / It could be the last letter you could send to yourself") -- should please those with OK Computer nostalgia.
Still, it would be overstatement to say that Undersea is simply the re-introduction of the Antlers as Radiohead Redux. Silberman, drummer Michael Lerner, and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci still sound very much like the band that made Burst Apart, albeit with some changes in emphasis. None of these songs pulse like "French Exit" or rock like "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out", but all four audibly descend from atmospheric slow burners like "I Don't Want Love" and "Hounds". The strands of jazz and soul that ran under Burst Apart are brought out even further here, with Cicci's muted trumpet getting the spotlight on "Zelda", and Silberman emoting admirably like a nightclub singer on the refrain to "Crest": "Clooooser to truth, but not much further".
If Undersea doesn't impress with its emotional breadth quite as much as Hospice or Burst Apart did, chalk it up to the limited run time of the EP. The Antlers make the most of this format, though, moving ever so slightly away from the sound of their last album, maintaining a rich and harmonious mood that might feel overwhelming on a full-length, and leaving us curious for what comes next.