THE ANTLERS: HOSPICE (2009)
1) Prologue; 2) Kettering; 3) Sylvia; 4) Atrophy; 5) Bear; 6) Thirteen; 7) Two; 8) Shiva; 9) Wake; 10) Epilogue.
The big breakthrough — a brave gamble on Silberman's part that paid off quite nicely. Having proven to himself that he had style and vision, Peter decided that, for all it's worth, it was high time he interfered in the battle between the light and the dark. To do that, he expanded «The Antlers» to real-life band size, recruiting Darby Cicci on brass, keyboards and «bowed banjo», and Michael Lerner on drums — and channelled his powers into the creation of a concept album. Two EPs were released first, mostly consisting of soundbites, previews, and indie rock covers; then the final result broke through in March 2009.
Hospice is generally described as a musical description of an abusive emotional relationship in terms of a metaphor — relations between a hospice-abiding dying bone cancer patient and her nurse. The concept sounds pretty bleak on paper, conjuring up smoke-filled visions of Lou Reedian blackness (everything from Berlin to Magic & Loss), but if you apply color vision to music, Silberman is always closer to white than to black, so even if he wanted to make Hospice a «depressed» album in the traditional sense, he wouldn't have the proper brain mechanism to do it.
Speaking of brain mechanisms, Hospice has also been called a major tear-jerker. This is one aspect of it that I did not get AT ALL — and I am definitely not above having a tear jerked out of me by a real pro jerk (actually, a music reviewer who has never once shed a tear over a musical piece should probably just get a job loading and unloading musical equipment, if, for some reason, he so fanatically yearns for a music-related occupation). Although the lyrics are, in a certain manner, sung from the nurse's point of view, by no means does Hospice have anything to do with the gritty realities of a true hospice, and, what's even more important, by no means does the emotional content of the album have anything to do with the actual emotions that one might be feeling towards a dying person — loved, unloved, caring, frustrating, whatever.
To tell the truth, the mood set by Hospice is almost every bit the same as was the mood set on Silberman's first two albums — and those albums had nothing to do with bone cancer patients. It's almost as if the underlying logic here was: «Hmm... don't I sound sad on these records? As in, really really fucking sad? Doesn't that, like, call for a really really sad theme? Say there — a girl is dying from cancer, and a boy has only just fallen in love with the girl, and they both know it's hopeless but they go along with it anyway... how's that for sad?»
But you know what — it's not that sad. It is certainly very pretty, just as pretty as Pete's previous musings. 'Bear' and, later, its reprise on 'Epilogue' is a convincingly solitary piece of melancholic brooding. 'Kettering' and 'Shiva' are competent mood pieces. 'Two' helps you not to fall asleep with a faster, more ironically upbeat melody. 'Sylvia' builds up to a nice climax. Silberman's voice is always attractive (unless your ideal for male vocalization is Lemmy), and his musical minimalism is never annoying, at least not to the point where you start thinking «gee, would having just one more chord in this song really kill this guy?» and spoil yourself all the fun.
It's all fine and dandy, but then: «The power of the album lies in the album's ability to destroy hope», a hype-stricken reviewer writes. Really? «A heartbreaking aural experience that hits us on a deeper level», writes another. Oh God. What have I missed here?
See, there are two problems. First, the guy is 22 years old. Just as a simple matter of fact, Count Tolstoy, being 22 years of age, had not yet written anything, let alone those of his works that were truly committed to exploring life-and-death issues. On a simpler scale of things, Mr. George Harrison, at 22 years of age, was mostly known for writing poetry along the lines of "You don't realize how much I need you / Love you all the time, I'll never leave you" rather than "Nothing in this life that I've been trying / Could equal or surpass the art of dying".
Sorry, folks, but that's just the way it goes. In various interviews, Silberman kept dropping hints that Hospice was specifically based on a particular «life-shaking» incident in his own life — that's as fine as can be, terrible or terrifying impressions can start haunting one from age three, but being able to transpose them into high-reaching, philosophical, serious conceptual art is a capacity that comes with experience. Biting off more than one can chew is not a pretty sight.
Second, these songs are merely okay. Merely OKAY. When a reviewer writes about the «flourishing acoustics» of 'Two', you'd think this were some new kind of Nick Drake, freshly landed off the clouds. Well — take a listen and decide for yourself. The song's not bad — that primitive strum merely serves as background attenuation for the vocals, which constitute the essential part — but in purely musical terms, Hospice is almost sheer nothing; it would, perhaps, have been more honest for Silberman to just come out and sing everything completely a cappella. (Now that would be a novel approach).
I have also seen comparisons to Arcade Fire's Funeral — well, both bands begin with an A, and both bands sing about death, and both bands are straightfaced and pretentious, but that's where the similarities end, since, behind all of their sky-high bombast, Arcade Fire actually set themselves much more modest goals than Silberman pretends to here. Arcade Fire are, above all, a rock band, and they go for big, brawny, blunt blows to the balls, creating catchy and memorable anthems for their generation. This smart little guy aspires towards much finer strokes and subtler sentiments — that's fine if it works, but in the case of Hospice, it doesn't work quite the way it is supposed to. Fail, fail, fail. Not one tear shed for Sylvia.
As vitriolic as these comments may sound, I would still invite everyone to make their own judgement — emotions are tricky sons of bitches — and I'd still give the album a thumbs up, on the condition that I can simply forget everything about the concept and the lyrics and just take it as a natural, modest expansion on the sounds of The Antlers' two previous records. After all, the guy is still a masterful singer, and there are two or three nicely composed themes here, and the ambient arrangements weren't too bad. But, for proper punishment, what I'd really like for this guy to do is record a duet with Ke$ha. Come on, Mr. Silberman. One for the kids. You know you can do it. You're a genius. Sky's the limit for geniuses.
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