I’m not a big crier. I’m not saying that I’m not an emotional human being–if the occasion calls for it, I can get plenty gleeful, hateful, playful, woeful, etc.–I’ve just never cried all that much. But I can remember the last time that I cried at a piece of music.
There is a moment towards the end of “Epilogue,” maybe the saddest song off of one of the saddest (yet least maudlin) albums released in the last ten years, The Antlers’ Hospice. In 2009 when I, alone in my new college dorm room, first heard Peter Silberman break open his falsetto like a wound on the final chorus, I wept, if only a little. There are many lines from many songs that leave a lump in my throat, but it wasn’t just what Silberman was saying that broke me. There are many chord changes that rightfully send shivers down my spine, but it wasn’t the melody that ruined me. Ultimately, it was the way in which Silberman’s wavering falsetto and aching melody seemed the only way to communicate the desperate pain that consumed the narrator. It was the sublime manner in which the melody and timbre of his voice drew out the emotion of the words, as if they could never have existed separately to begin with.
In my last review, I briefly opined that the best songs are constructed to place the listener within the headspace of the song. I can’t think of a band that’s consistently been better at such a feat than The Antlers, so a review of their album is the perfect time to explore how this fascinating association can practically function. Surprisingly, The Antlers’ fifth studio album, Familiars, fails at this task more than any of their other releases, so I can’t think of a better opportunity to discuss this band’s dichotomous methods in sharp relief.
The Antlers have always been great at the musical tricks of emotional expression. They received much of their critical clout for their third album, Hospice, and rarely has such hype been so well deserved. Hospice tells the story of a hospital worker failing in love with a cancer patient, or, depending on your intertextual perspective, a lover losing their partner to addiction. This wasn’t a story just told in the lyrics. The album was filled with bracing passages of noise that magnified the cacophony of love rent asunder. Silberman’s voice, its passion equaled only by its untrained, harrowing reach was an impeccable expression of the way in which emotions catch in your throat before they are screamed out.
Much of the press leading up to 2011’s Burst Apart seemed to demonstrate a growing sense of isolation in Silberman, as his band had so quickly expanded beyond his bedroom and his emotions were suddenly writ across a terrifyingly broad canvas. Suddenly his voice, a more experienced emotive weapon after being honed by extensive touring, sounded longing, weary, and disconnected at the center of a clear and hollow instrumental mix. The songs sounded bigger and more spacious, but his voice seemed to hide in the center of the storm, afraid to venture into the wide open space around him. Listen to the way the space between the ringing chords of “I Don’t Want Love,” intensifies the titular rejoinder, as if space between the notes is where the narrator’s ex-lover or demon waits to strike. It wasn’t as openly throat-bearing as Hospice (honestly, how could you top “Cancer Ward”), but its fear of open expression was an equally operative emotional ballast.
This former success gave me high hopes for Familiars. “Palace,” the lead single, seemed to draw a direct through-line back to the previous albums. It had a sound which, while still distinctly part of the Pink Floyd-devoted, lowercase “r” genre of rock, is different from anything else I’ve heard lately, including The Antlers’ previous output. What other song this year has so intentionally aped the sound of Muzak and done so to such great effect?
The Antlers used this matchless sound to connect to a common emotion through a uniquely distorted emotional prism. Everyone has pined for a connection to a simpler time, particularly regarding relationships, which only seem to grow in complexity as they progress. Still, the semi-jazzy up-tempo piano that carries “Palace” seems designed to amplify the opening salvo. When Silberman sings “You were simpler / You were lighter / When we thought like little kids,” the careful instrumentation allows both the listener and narrator to connect to the dust-in-the-spotlight freedom that childhood (real or metaphorical) allows us. Likewise, the song effectively deploys heavier and more foreboding instrumentation throughout the song (the swelling and crashing horn lines, cascading drums, and softly fuzzed-out and distant guitar lines) to match the following couplet, the narrator watching as “you were hid inside a stranger you grew into.” The yearning falsetto that Silberman has become known for is deployed discreetly to punch the heaviest lines home, and another classic is born for The Antlers.
Albums are so much more than great opening songs, though, and because of poor instrumental expression and weak sequencing, “Palace” represents the high point of the album. While initially jarring with its strange Nina Simone-style vocals in the verses, “Doppelganger” is still an effective, complementary darker half to “Palace.” It’s weird, with its strange ascending chord progression, but it’s supposed to be. The uneasy harmonies heighten the danger in Silberman’s voice as he ominously intones “If you’re quiet / You can hear the monster breathing.” Not nearly as engaging as its predecessor, “Doppelganger” is still good enough that a powerhouse third song could have saved it. Sadly, that powerhouse never comes. “Hotel” is fine, playing out like the softer cousin to Burst Apart’s isolation in rhythmic expressionism, but every song after it sounds so close to “Hotel” that they become interchangeable.
It’s not only a problem of sequencing–when six out of the nine tracks use the same basic guitar figures, tempos, and instrumental cadences, no amount of reshuffling will save a record from the deathly sallow of sameness. Unfortunately, this formlessness veils what seems to be a lot of remarkable lyrical perspective. Silberman can crank out emotional and interesting lyrics about weariness, nostalgia, the sadness of hollow celebration and more, but when every song sounds the same, every emotion begins to blend together in the soup, until only a flat affect rises to the top.
I admit I’m being harsh on this album. In the weak middle six there are still stirring moments, and each track’s instrumentation, while similar, is often colored in with myriad details that will probably position this as The Antlers’ best grower of an album. In spite of what it follows (or maybe because of it), the final lines of the closing song “Refuge” still pack an emotional wallop. As Silberman sings “It’s not our house that we remember / It’s a feeling outside it / When everyone’s gone / but we leave all the lights on anyway,” his guitar work, finally pulled out of the reverb sludge in which it’s been buried for most of the album, matches the emptiness and aching hope that just such an image conjures up.
It’s a great way to end a mediocre album that, produced by artists with a less pristine track record, would have been very good. I guess I expect better of The Antlers. It’s fine to have an album that grows on you, but for years they’ve been putting out records that are immediate and boundless. It’s fine to have a sound that defines an album, but on each previous release, the group has used a distinct sonic pattern to reinforce an emotion, not to define (and thereby limit) the work itself. Ultimately I’m fine with this album, but from a band as potent and seasoned as this one, I sort of expect tears.