Allow me to forge a fair warning: The Antlers’ Hospice is not an easy record to sit through. With the right focus, in the right mindset, this album is as powerful on the soul as climbing a mountain is on the body. This album will crush you if you don’t know what to expect.
Hospice is at once the simplest and most immense album of the year.
It’s music is made of small melodies, tiny vocal ranges and repeated, winking guitar lines. It is basic piano, slow-rolling drums.
But the numbers on the lock form the correct code: the combination of those simple sounds works, and through their collective, unified operation comes music that surprises, that soothes and washes over you like a mother bathing her child. It’s music that smacks you on the side of the head, but then embraces you and apologizes in tears for being so cruel.
The Antlers make music that marches more intently – unfocused on trends or what anyone thinks may be cool – than any band since The Arcade Fire. And even then, listeners had a half-birthed thought that yeah, these guys sound kind of pompous.
But not the case on Hospice.
Like so many true albums – where a listen through is necessary and single-track listens won’t do – Hospice tells a story. Without giving away too much, it basically goes as follows: the narrator (presumably Peter Silberman, the band’s singer and songwriter) loves someone (presumably a woman from a short, too-much, too-soon affair) who is dying of (again, presumably) cancer. And as he watches her retreat into her own mind, unable to keep up with the sensations and feelings of the world, he retreats as well. As the disease eats her body, so too does it eat away at their relationship. He dies with her though in perfect health, often so overcome by helplessness that all he can do is watch in horror, unable to move his lips, unable to utter, “It’s alright. It’s going to be fine.”
Though it is more often than not harmful to one’s appreciation of music to become wrapped up in the back story of its creation, the making of Hospice is worth noting.
Silberman wrote the album after an experience involving a children’s cancer ward – which he’s declined discussing in detail – not entirely unlike the story he tells. He stayed in his Brooklyn apartment writing (and likely writhing) for over a year, destroying friendships by snipping lines of contact, emerging eventually with the songs that would become Hospice.
Now, without knowing that, any listener could tell that Hospice is not an album recorded with studio sheen, with producers poking and prodding. Silberman’s music seems to have spilled from his mind right through the speakers.
This is an album that is utterly blind to the popping and sizzling world around it; the notion that anything else matters is absent here. Hospice lives in a world with no doors, no vents or grates, no communication.
This record could have been recorded in the high tower of a castle by monks never allowed outside its gates: it sounds that pure, that alone.
There are pianos here that melt into the music without any percussive motion – just sound that tip-toes in and slides out unnoticed. And other times that piano is a boy climbing the lattice on the side of the house of the girl he loves to whisper into her window waiting for her to awakens, believing it was because she knew he was there.
Writer and singer Peter Silberman’s voice is even more liquid than the piano that melts beneath him. His words flow, slowly, between breaths. His voice so smoothed that, at times, the most percussive sound we hear is that of his lips touching between his words.
And when the music picks up and starts to gallop, it leaps to the complete other end of the sonic spectrum – from a whisper to a blizzard. The chorus of “Sylvia,” with Silberman’s pained cry of “Sylvia! / Get your head out of the oven!” (part of a subplot comparing Sylvia Plath’s destruction to that of his lover, juxtaposing the power of depression with the darkness of death), is more forcefully beautiful than anything Grizzly Bear’s ever created. Wind seems to whip through the recording, violently blowing the music in circles.
On “Two,” when the narrator realizes, once and for all, that it’s just too late, Silberman sings a short story’s worth of lyrics, all in one simple, repeating melody, over a rusty acoustic guitar.
“There was nothing I could do to save you / the choir’s gonna sing and this thing is gonna kill you / Something in my throat made the next words shake / and something in the wires made the light bulbs break.”
Paired with melancholy piano drops, Silberman’s words are richly visual. The light bulbs do break – they spark and shatter as our narrator falls to the floor, unaware of the broken glass that surrounds him.
So, sure, the music is powerful – emotional in a personal sense that most music never manages (most recent example: The National).
Now, for better or worse, Silberman knows this.
The problem with Silberman knowing the power of his music is that he is patient. He is extraordinarily patient – he knows what’s to come – and his patience extends beyond the music.
His songs, several of which are longer than six minutes, build incredibly slowly – and that’s fine. But with nearly five seconds of silence precede each song, the river-force flow of his music is unnecessarily halted. These gaps may be in place for Silberman simply to catch his breath, for his mind to re-enter his head, but for a hungry music listener, a break in intensity to the point of silence can be disturbing.
But maybe that’s part of the plan.
On the nine minute album centerpiece “Wake,” Silberman meditates on the comfort and terror that comes with solitude (“It was easier to lock the doors and kill the phones than to show my skin / because the hardest thing is never to repent for someone else / it’s letting people in”) over a hushed choral and piano arrangement and delicate percussion that sounds like footsteps through fresh snow.
But he does turn the page.
The drums pick up into a funeral procession, Silberman’s voice gains strength, the ghost choir takes a bigger breath.
“Don’t ever / let anyone / tell you / you deserve that.”
Anger, restlessness, fear, pride and beauty; Hospice is one of the most accomplished, complete albums made in years. And when last track “Epilogue” ends with Silberman singing, “You return to me at night just when I think I may have fallen asleep / Your face is up against mine / and I’m too terrified to speak,” there’s no closure, no easy answer to sew up the wound.
It took Silberman over a year to calm down, to stop reeling. Hospice is a 53 minute slice of that experience, and though it’s only a small window, the view is overwhelming.