It begins with the sound of an infinite void. Press play on The Antlers’ third album Hospice and all that will greet you is a cold, unsettling silence. From the abyss echoes a few light sonic flutters. Then, a crescendoing blare that evokes images of a swirling storm, thankfully soothed by some slow, pretty keys that provide all the comfort of a lighthouse on a dark night.
This chaos sounds like a universe being willed into existence. Yet the sense of creation and wonderment defies the crushing pain of the album’s narrative.
Hospice outlines the relationship between a health service worker and a female patient suffering from terminal bone cancer. Released a decade ago, the album — which The Antlers will perform in full at The Sugar Club, Dublin on April 30th as part of an anniversary tour — is inspired by the real-life experiences of the New York band's main man, Peter Silberman.
The singer himself has been coy about the story behind the music, perhaps not wanting to drain away any of its power. “I try not to spell it out too much,” he told the Village Voice in 2009, “it’s all there, but maybe takes a little bit to dig in.”
The Antlers orbited Brooklyn at a time when large sections of the borough were implementing all core commandments of hipster scripture
What we do know is that Silberman spent a year and a half in a kind of self-imposed social isolation, processing the emotionally wrought of the events that inspired this record, funnelling the raw pain into his writing. Along with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Hospice brought back into vogue the concept of the “cabin in the woods” album.
That is, the romantic idea that an artist must seclude themselves from the outside world to find the deepest pits of their soul, the pain within their chests, and the most forbidden crevices of their id. (Extremely literal in Bon Iver's case as Justin Vernon actually recorded in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin. )
Just last year, Justin Timberlake attempted to wrap his expensive album Man of the Woods in this same aesthetic. But it takes more than a plaid shirt to mimic that sense of segregation. It's a feeling you sense between an album's grooves, embedded in its silences, in the ruptured cracks of the instrumentation and vocals.
Silberman may have been living in busy Brooklyn, and backed in the studio by bandmates Justin Stivers (bass), Michael Lerner (drums) and Darby Cicci (trumpet, bowed banjo), plus guest vocalist Sharon Van Etten, but they could almost be spirits circling over his head. On Hospice, Silberman presents with a haunting sense of loneliness that cuts through you like a winter frost.
Yet Hospice was a fashionable record when it first dropped. The Antlers orbited Brooklyn at a time when large sections of the borough were implementing all core commandments of hipster scripture. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a band or venue, while the golden age of music blogs captured the scene in a way that was as thoughtful as it was guerilla.
The rattle and hum of The Antlers’ art rock was in-line with local stars like Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors. Plus, there was elements of zeitgeist indie bands such as Canadians Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene in their sound too. When I caught The Antlers at The Academy 2, Dublin, in December 2009, they were supported by a largely unknown James Vincent McMorrow (the rising star, extremely ill on the day, had to tell the crowd he was a solo artist and not a band). The arrival of McMorrow was inductive if this fertile era of broad, choral indie-folk.
Still, those more famous groups seem positively garish compared to The Antlers. Even when the arrangements are amped up, Hospice sounds like it could blow away in the wind at any moment.
As for Silberman's story, it's difficult to tell if working on this music provided him with any sense of catharsis
Take Kettering, the album’s first song proper. Named after the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, it’s a piece that encapsulates Hospice’s emotional resonance. On its surface, the track seems simple to the point of austerity, focusing on nothing but a simple piano line and Silberman’s whispering voice.
With no chorus and just a single verse, it’s as structurally basic as an indie song gets. But Silberman’s writing is staggering, immediately introducing listeners to his lead characters and dropping us into their doomed romance.
The first line summarises the pair’s connection: “I wish that I had known in that first minute we met/ The unpayable debt that I owed you,” wails Silberman. From there, the singer recalls observing the tubes in the woman’s arms, her reluctance to accept their connection in her terminal state, and Silberman’s denial that she would inevitably die.
The melodies throughout Hospice are devilishly simple. Songs like Kettering and Bear feature unsophisticated tunes that sound lifted from children’s nursery rhymes, while Two, the album’s most pop-leaning number, rides some suitably chipper acoustic guitar strums.
In keeping the melodies basic, Silberman adds to the record’s feeling of honesty. As thoughtful as the lyrics are, the melodies depict the raw simplicity of human emotions.
Reading from the Arcade Fire playbook, Sylvia is an archtype quiet-to-loud folk-rock song. The wind swirls on the chorus with enough power to take Dorothy out of Kansas as Silberman ratchets his vocals up to a powerful screech.
For the most part, though, The Antlers’ opt for a low-key approach. Delicate moments of electronica are regularly infused into the orchestration: see the pitter-patter beat that underpins the experimental sounds of Atrophy. A line like, “I’d happily take all those bullets inside you/ And put them inside of myself” sounds like such an emotional crescendo, but delivered quietly in the middle of a sprawling number, it disarms you every time.
I revisited Hospice half-expecting it to have aged terribly. It’s a record that’s indicative of a period of Brooklynite culture that has since faded. But there’s a tenderness in the album’s spirit that’s timeless. The band followed up Hospice with two more albums, Burst Apart (2011) and Familiars (2014). Both are grand, elegant records, but for me, neither could match emotional resonance of Hospice.
As for Silberman’s story, it’s difficult to tell if working on this music provided him with any sense of catharsis – if the act of creating Hospice in any way soothed his soul. All we know is that The Antlers captured unbearable pain. But not only did they illustrate grief, they made it beautiful.