THE ANTLERS: BURST APART (2011)
Perhaps the best thing about Hospice, when you think about it once again, was that the album at least made the world sit up and notice the Antlers (or, rather, that part of the world that is still capable of sitting up, let alone noticing anything of real value). After all, how easy is it just to ignore a conceptual record about a nurse-patient relationship in a hospice? With tense psychologism like that, centered around life/death/moral/ethics questions, Hospice fit right into the center of modern trends. Had the music been obviously, grotesquely bad, that would have given the reviewers a good pretext for killing these guys off; but the music is... questionable, and in conjunction with the controversial subject matter, here was a good chance to reap an impressive bunch of five-star clusters falling from the sky.
What this means to me, in the department of «good news», is that this reception gave an equally good chance to Silberman's next album — Burst Apart, as far as I'm concerned, is far superior to Hospice, but it probably would not have generated half as much publicity if it were not preceded by the intense red alert of Hospice's album sleeve. Even despite having better songs divided by fewer ambitions. «You do the math», to quote the Avett Brothers' favourite line of banter.
Perhaps having built up a little cash (and a lot more self-confidence), Silberman now expands the Antlers' instrumentation, adding mandolins, organs, and whatever else he may get his hands on; the skeptical result is that it all still sounds just like his bedroom demos in the end, only louder and bigger. But he also writes better songs. Granted, 'I Don't Want Love' opens the album in a very Hospiceable mood — another bitter-angelic declaration of broken dreams delivered from high up in a puffy cloud, ungraspable by mere mortal: proverbially gorgeous, frustratingly unmemorable. And it's not the only such composition here.
But elsewhere, Silberman gets a bit snappier, capable of pricking your senses rather than just huffing and puffing at them. For instance, 'Parentheses' incorporates a smoky, funky, trip-hop groove somewhat reminiscent of classic Portishead, and is occasionally drowned in ominous alarm siren effects — against this sort of background even Silberman's already well-familiar falsetto gets sarcastic, disillusioned, even mocking overtones, a fine contrast with his usual starry-eyed shtick. (And it is totally up to you to decide if lines like "I'm a bad amputee, with no phantom memory / So close up your knees, and I'll close your parentheses" constitute great modern poetry or a clumsy, ugly, pretentious heap of words, but this is definitely the first time I have encountered the word "parentheses" in the context of a pop song, let alone in its title).
The album's climax, however, is — without a single doubt — 'Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out', one of this century's finest «emo» tunes written by a non-emo artist. Or, actually, it is such a terrific Cure send-up, I'm sure Robert Smith would kill (or, at least, consent to gaining another fifty pounds of body mass) to add this little gem to his own catalog. It is just a good old-fashioned mope-pop tune, bleak, desperate, but moving fast and in a strongly-determined manner towards a brilliantly planned — if not nearly as brilliantly executed, due to Silberman's lack of technical experience — crescendo. Bottomline: don't try too hard — respect the good old golden middle — you might just end up with a real, not fake tear-jerker in the end.
The musicianship, overall, is still not all that impressive, but Silberman's friends are slowly trying to turn the Antlers into a real band — Darby Cicci's strange «jug-bass» work on 'French Exit' is worth paying attention, and, although Michael Lerner leans way too heavy on the big robot drums of his 1980s childhood, for the purposes of the Antlers this style really works. It's like an «anti-commercial adult contemporary» thing, taking many of the clichés of the past decades' soft entertainment and turning them on their heads. It's okay. And on 'Every Night' he just drums like a fine Brit-popper of the old school — perfectly suited to Silberman's retroish guitar licks.
In short, not all of this journey is as smooth as I'd like to, but by the time they get around to the grand finale of 'Putting The Dog To Sleep', they get me. At the risk of sounding way inconsistent, I am somehow far more moved by Silberman's soulful singing from the point of view of an about-to-be-exterminated animal than from that of a hospice worker (or patient). Maybe because this time around we know it's just a little allegory, a bit of rock theater, rather than a pretense at getting so close to the point of ultimate understanding of life and death. Maybe it's something else, but it's a good epic finale all the same.
Thumbs up on all levels — this is still nowhere near a masterpiece, but they just might be getting close. And, above all, it is imperative that Silberman try to branch out in as many directions as possible: stuff like 'Every Night...' shows that his gift is not confined to cloudbursting falsetto arias, and since, by this point, he has most probably taken that type of aria as high as it could go with him, he'd be an idiot not to try to understand the scope of that gift. Of course, I do not mean branching off into hardcore punk or anything like that, but... the less predictability from these guys, the better.
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Check "Burst Apart" (MP3) on Amazon