’09 was really busy. I got married that year, and 100 great records came out. So, Hospice slipped past me. So sue me. Maybe it’s possible that my mind knew I wouldn’t be ready. Maybe I just thought I wouldn’t like it. I don’t know why, but for the last two-and-a-half years, Hospice sat in my iTunes library, taunting me to listen, but for two-and-a-half years, I ignored its’ pleas for a spin or two.
But then, they were announced as the support for Explosions In The Sky at their Portland date. So I thought to myself, “Why not just give it a shot?”
WHY NOT GIVE IT A SHOT?! I thought! So, I did. And you know what I found?
Hot on the heels of a new Antlers album, Burst Apart, none of the revelations about their previous record will come as a surprise to the blogosphere-at-large what which may or may not be reading my very late assessment of Hospice. The story goes, the record is a narrative of someone dealing with being in an abusive relationship, using the point-of-view that this relationship is like that of someone’s relationship with a loved one in hospice; you love them, and everything that happens hurts more than the last thing, but no matter what you think you may be able to do, you are never going to make anything better. At all. And that’s a very bleak message for any human singer to intone, but coming from the ethereal voice of vocalist Peter Silberman, it feels absolutely agonizing.
The interesting thing about his voice is how strikingly it, and the words he sings, come to the forefront of the music, and how he manages to manipulate different emotions just by changing how he sings words. Around my 20th listen of the record, I noticed that the first song (with vocals), “Kettering,” is sung in such a way that when Silberman sings the line, “And I didn’t believe them / when they told me that there was no saving you,” it’s in a strain almost like that of Conor Oberst; while Oberst is always on the verge of tears, Silberman, here, is singing in the moments when those tears have subsided to the point where real words can be formed. But over the course of the record, and the relationship at hand, his voice ebbs and flows, grows weaker and stronger, to the point where, in “Epilogue,” he finishes by screaming the final words. It’s a haunting motif, pushed forth just in how the words are sung, but it tells a compelling story nonetheless.
But those words are even more interesting. That’s where things get tricky. The themes on Hospice are the kind that would destroy any normal man, and here, Silberman puts them on the table with a conviction that belies just how numbed he’s become to everything around him (or the person for which he is singing). In “Sylvia,” he rises up almost to the level of the maelstrom of cymbal crashes and destroyed notes around him, “Get your head out of the oven / go back to screaming and cursing / Remind me again how everyone betrayed you.” It’s not sung from a place where he’s trying to cut down the person he’s screaming it at, but merely expressing a feeling that has, for all intents purposes, mostly faded. The words used almost all fall into their place as though they were meant to follow each other, as though you would have written them yourself if you had known they were there. In “Wake,” just under his breath, he intones a perfect lesson: “The hardest thing is never to repent for someone else / it’s letting people in.” It’s a miraculous phrase, and once you hear it, it sticks perfectly.
It’s easy to go on forever about Silberman’s words (I could write this review based solely on the expert craft of songs like “Two” or “Bear,” but I’ll try to refrain), but the music itself tells the story just as well. The Antlers are exactly what one imagines a “power trio” to be, where everything each musician does is a direct response to what the others are doing. “Prologue” works exactly like that: wordlessly telling you everything you need to know about what you’re going to be listening to, and in only a few short minutes. Each and every song is something like this; buried under Silberman’s strained words, the notes being played are working in perfect time together, telling the exact same story. The fact that you can almost understand every last nuance of the story without gleaning a word is a tremendous mark of how tightly the band works together.
In hindsight, I wish I had caught on to the record when it had first come out, and not two-and-a-half years later. Maybe, today, I’d feel exactly the same way as everyone who heard it then. It’s a sign of the power behind a record when you wish you’d heard it sooner, purely because then you’d have that much more time to spend with it. Time has shown how Hospice has made The Antlers grab hold of the spotlight, and every article written about their power as a band is well-deserved.