Monday, August 10, 2009

The Antlers: Hospice

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The indie world loves a good backstory to an album's genesis. Jeff Mangum reads Anne Frank's diary and it becomes one of the key influences on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; the deaths of several of the band's family members is felt throughout The Arcade Fire's Funeral, interpreted by many as a meditation on remembrance; Justin Vernon retreats to a Wisconsin cabin and creates For Emma, Forever Ago, one of the starkest and most moving records in recent years. Besides giving both fans and critics a convenient starting point in approaching such efforts, this framework lends these albums credibility and a sense of purpose.

Hospice, the remarkable debut full-length from Brooklyn-based trio The Antlers, similarly comes with its own history. Originally self-released and now re-issued by Frenchkiss Records, the album was written by vocalist Peter Silberman after two years of self-imposed isolation and tells the story of a doomed relationship between a hospital worker and a woman/child who eventually dies of cancer. Epic in scope and nearly flawless in execution, Hospice is a deeply emotional work that will likely be remembered as one of this decade's most fully realized albums and an intense set of songs that encompasses life's fleeting joys and giant tragedies in equal measure.

Though it's become a cliché to describe a singer's voice as an instrument, it's appropriate here. Falling somewhere between Win Butler and Jeff Buckley but sounding different on every track, Silberman's vocals change with each song's shifting dynamics as he bends his words and phrasing to fit the songs' spaces and squeeze emotions out of every line. "Sylvia" alternates between buried and inaudible vocals and the singer's desperate shouts, while the delivery of "Kettering" is cracked and clipped. In other places Silberman is perfectly audible: the up-front and vulnerable vocals of "Bear" and the acoustic closer "Epilogue" are stripped bare and sound disarming in their clarity.

The arrangements are likewise varied; though a thick wash of shoegaze, ambiance and fuzz is applied often, the album's stylistic foundation is difficult to pin down and impossible to stereotype. Though trace amounts of Arcade Fire arena-ready indie rock can be heard, the instrumentation is far more textured and complex. "Atrophy" lulls the listener in with a repeated keyboard melody and airy instrumentation eventually swallowed up by sounds resembling a whirling machine and breaking glass, before these fade into an acoustic guitar and Silberman's plaintive lament that the patient is "screaming, expiring, and I'm her only witness." No song is ever predictable or rests comfortably for long: "Bear" begins with a snippet of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and ends with a swirl of horns; the banjo that carries most of "Two" is eventually smothered by keyboards and a solid wall of sound; the gentle haze of "Wake" gives way to more swelling horns and white noise. Though Silberman will likely garner the bulk of the attention here, instrumentalists Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci deserve mention. Lerner's percussion propels the songs forward, most notably on "Sylvia," while Cicci's horns give the songs additional depth.

Silberman sings that there are "two ways to tell the story," and ultimately the listener is left to piece this tale together. At its core are two central characters whose fates are irreversibly linked: the woman/child dying of cancer and her self-described "eulogy singer." Beyond that, Hospice's specifics are open to interpretation. Certain events are mentioned, such as a quickie marriage ("Two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry"), either a birth or abortion ("There's a bear inside your stomach/ A cub's been kicking you for weeks/ And if this isn't all a dream/ Well then we'll cut him from beneath"), the unraveling of a frequently dysfunctional relationship and a childhood punctuated by nightmares and wrecked by an abusive father. Perspectives and timelines shift from song to song, a narrative of two lives that plays out in the couple's imaginations, memories, or both, with the sweep and power of a great novel. Silberman has a poet's eye and ear for evocative images and phrases: there are empty cancer ward beds, hospital machines that beep for the last time, "singing morphine alarms out of tune," someone waking up and finding "no breathing body" beside him.

Hospice shouldn't work as well as it does. Its recurring motif of mortality, set against the backdrop of an institutional cancer ward, is decidedly severe. What offsets the album's somber tone is an underlying sense of commitment, dedication and acceptance; "I'd happily take all those bullets inside you/ And put them inside of myself," the narrator vows at one point. These songs exist in a gray space between hopelessness and determination, where life is bleak but perhaps not permanently so. Though the man in Hospice struggles to come to terms with death and loneliness, hope is never entirely abandoned and his memories can be as comforting as they are disturbing. It's a staggering, nuanced and near-perfect record whose triumphs and tragedies are never trivial or melodramatic; an album of mourning that nevertheless allows flickers of promise to shine through.

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