There are sad albums and cathartic tunes that we may stow away for a breakup and a bottle of wine. There are albums that should be locked away in steel vaults lest they be heard and flood the streets with tears. And then there’s The Antlers’ 2009 breakthrough, Hospice, a concept album exploring the relationship between a hospice worker and the terminal patient he/she falls in love with. The music is bone-meltingly sad, but the emotional intensity would mean little without the band’s immaculate songwriting and production. The album vaulted The Antlers into Brooklyn’s flourishing indie scene and cemented Peter Silberman as a remarkable lyricist. Indeed, Hospice still stands as a high-water mark for recent songwriting. Its origin story has also become a hotly-debated question mark — what death, disease or other disaster prompted Silberman to write such an aching record?
Why We Love It
Being a concept album, Hospice functions and exists as a single organism. It’s something you listen to from start to finish without skipping any tracks. And not only do the songs bleed together thematically, but the musical transitions stitch the compositions together into an effortless continuity (bringing to mind Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea). This continuity is anything but redundant or tiresome, though. The album is composed of fragments that can quickly erupt from far-away cooing into brass-section crescendo, from ambient white noise to screaming bloody murder. Ethereal static to lovely harmonies.
Lyrically, the album tells the story of a doomed love between a hospice worker and a terminal cancer patient. The hospice worker is torn apart by guilt and an inability to save the patient: a patient who turns out to be both wounded and wounding, a manipulative and terrifying character in her/his own right. It’s a brilliant allegory for any relationship built precariously on dependence, manipulation and emotional abuse. If you sit and let the album’s story wash over you to its full effect, it will destroy you. And this is no coincidence, as the album’s central concern is the point at which we allow a toxic relationship to overwhelm and destroy us. In light of all of this, Hospice is not a cavern to enter lightly, but its richness means it can be revisited again and again.
Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement is its use of contrast. As I’ve mentioned, Hospice both purrs and writhes as a single beast, volatile and vulnerable like the very relationship it portrays. “Sylvia” is an iconic example. And while “Wake” urges towards some healing or redemption, “Epilogue” slithers back into nightmare. Silberman’s voice dances through the sugar-sweet “Bear” — that is, until we realize his lyrics describe an abortion. In fact, Silberman’s quivering falsetto is one the album’s deadliest weapons. Little melodies pop up, only to burrow underground before surfacing again in a later song. There are interludes of pure sound (like “Prologue”) that shudder with fragility and crash like thunder. Some fragments are lush, while others thrive in the simplicity of just voice and piano — see the end of “Thirteen”. Silberman’s lyrics (written almost entirely in prose — an achievement in itself) are both raw and reigned in by an artistry that keeps the album from falling anywhere near “bad breakup album” territory. On every level, Hospice feels masterful.
What They’re Doing Now
Understandably, Hospice created a bit of a conundrum for the band; how to follow up such a uniquely harrowing album? In other words, how to explore new thematic territory without being typecast as chronic sobsters. Luckily, the band overcame the hurdle they created for themselves. In fact, The Antlers have steadily released albums and EP’s since Hospice, and they spent 2015 touring in support of their latest LP, Familiars. Over the years, they’ve surrounded themselves with like-minded songwriters like Sharon Van Etten (who sings on Hospice) and The National, who all share a certain penchant for malaise. In September of last year, though, the band announced that it was going on indefinite hiatus. Whether or not The Antlers return to making music, Hospice alone is enough to tide us over for years to come.