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September 7, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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The Antlers: Hospice (Frenchkiss)

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The Antlers’ debut, Hospice, is a concept album, which centres on the relationship between a hospital orderly and a young girl with a terminal illness. Its non-elliptical narrative is delivered in lengthy, stream-of‑consciousness bursts that recall James Mercer’s method (though not his means) on the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow. The Antlers’ stock trade is a quiet/loud dynamic, but even the big moments, which might otherwise threaten to hit Sigur Ros-esque levels of intensity, have an unusual muted overtone to them. Vocalist (and songwriter) Peter Silberman has a soft voice, which maintains its whisplike quality even as the volume levels begin to rise. Together, the lyrics, the vocals and the varied instrumentation (a reverb-heavy mix of piano, synths and orchestral arrangements) form an evocative blend, working in unison to reflect the sadness and alienation experienced by Hospice’s two protagonists.

Thankfully, The Antlers manage to avoid the potential pitfalls of their weighty subject matter by presenting it with uplifting anthemics and interspersed moments of childlike tenderness. ‘Bear ’is perhaps the most obvious example of this balanced approach. It begins with Silberman singing gently over an interpolation of the melody from ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. A rising swell clears the way for the entry of a deftly strummed guitar figure. It’s one of the few uses of a truly conventional chorus on the album, and Silberman’s vocals carry it off with a perfect piece of juxtaposition: “We’re too old/We’re not old at all/Just too old/We’re not old at all.”

I can’t imagine anybody writing a more gentle and touching song about an abortion. And that’s the genius of Hospice; though its lyrics are often achingly sad, the melodies always seem to produce the sensation of being comforted. Take the album’s second single, ‘Two’, which describes the orderly’s experience of learning that his ward’s illness has become terminal. Its foundations are simple: Silberman’s non-stop storytelling voice, a repetitive guitar strum and a bare-bones kick+snare beat. The guitar riff stays the same for ‘Two’s’ entire 6-minute duration, while other elements (bass, organs, synths, piano, high-hats) are added to the mix, steadily increasing the tension like mercury rising in a thermometer. But for all of ‘Two’s’ heavy lyrical content Silberman manages to maintain a reassuring, if slightly worried, tone of voice.

And then there’s ‘Wake’. As the second-to-last track, and at almost 9 minutes in length, it serves as Hospice’s emotional climax and denouement. A gentle chorus of “oooohs” and a delicate arrangement of keys and strings provide the tender backdrop, while Silberman sings: “The hardest thing is never to repent for someone else, it’s letting people in”. It’s a downright gorgeous moment, but Silberman refuses to rest on his laurels. He presses on with another verse (“Well you can come inside, unlock your door, take off your shoes”), before returning to the same melodic conclusion. But this time things take an unexpected shift; the humming vocals drop out, leaving only a series of naked piano plinks to carry ‘Wake’ forward. Silberman’s voice returns over a dark progression of piano chords, the keys pile up, and the choral refrain finally arrives. “Don’t ever / let anyone / tell you / you deserve that.” The words are repeated over and over, while another (higher) vocal track comes in to provide further emphasis and support. On ’Wake’, Silberman’s voice is gentle and reassuring, but also firm and insistent. And underneath? The band ramp themselves up to produce the most perfect crescendo imaginable, in an album that was already full of them. I can vividly remember the first time I heard it; my body rendered immobile, held captive to its beauty. As Silberman delivered his closing remarks on the final track, ‘Epilogue’, I felt the inevitable tears run down my cheeks.

Taken as a whole, Hospice is an incredible work, and one that almost feels out of time in an mp3 age where tracklists are increasingly becoming a recommendation rather than a rule. It’s truly refreshing to hear a band produce material that relies so heavily on the linear album format. Even Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, which is perhaps Hospice’s closest cousin in 2009, can be picked apart and experienced in a modular fashion without doing too much harm to the songs themselves. But this is something else. Silberman’s lyrics are often veiled in a manner that adds ambiguity to the narrative, forcing you to work hard in order to experience the full force of his themes. Such respect for the intelligence (both mental and emotional) of its listeners, combined with its delicately unfolding beauty, and an unflinching emphasis on structural unity, mark Hospice out as the most rewarding album of the year.

Ratings:

Mainstream: 3 Stars
Indie: 9.8
Kim: Genius

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