By Andrew Hall | 24 August 2009
Though it’s always been a theme in popular music, the late 2000s have been awfully kind to the disastrous year write-up by way of pop record. The most successful of these, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), was as much mythology as it was actual songwriting and Justin Vernon’s time spent alone in a cabin became as integral to the music as the songs themselves. Why?‘s Alopecia (2008) was in many ways an extended breakup diary, but the band’s stellar arrangements and Yoni Wolf’s consistently astounding, often hilarious imagery were anchors enough to hold the entire album together. On The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit left absolutely nothing to the imagination and we’re all the better for it, Scott Hutchison pulled off the most straightforward of all of these with only minor missteps.
Which brings us to Hospice, the first widely-distributed album by the Antlers. It’s a fairly lengthy record, described by Wikipedia as one which “tells an explicit story (in first and second person narrative) of a man losing a loved one to bone cancer and watching her die in the Sloan Kettering Cancer Ward while he is beside her.” This is correct. Wikipedia then makes sure to note that “Memories, regret and grief occur throughout the album.” This is also correct. The Wiki does not make any mention of tunes; there’s certainly a whole lot of emoting and quite a bit of development—as well as a whole lot of ambience—but there are few moments in which songs emerge throughout the record’s lengthy haze and few moments that prove as cathartic as those of the best records in the genre.
For the most part the songs here get lost and allow melodic ideas to emerge only slowly from their cymbal- and guitar-heavy soundscapes, delivering far more exposition than hooks. This happens most apparently and most frustratingly in “Atrophy,” which builds a nearly unchanging drone for five minutes before emerging as a damaged acoustic-guitar-and-voice piece, as well as “Kettering”; both are far more concerned with their hospital imagery than anything else. “Sylvia” is the most successful song built on this model, as its unremarkable verses at least give way to a massive, howling chorus—apparently about Sylvia Plath’s suicide—and a grand, explosive finish complete with a horn section. Unfortunately, Hospice stays in far more than it reaches out.
There are two pop songs even more accessible than “Sylvia.” “Bear” is a relatively concise pop song, likely about abortion, that builds its verses on mallets and its chorus on big, bludgeoning guitars. The development is all in the verses as vocalist Peter Silberman uses his hospital imagery to communicate the growing isolation between the world and himself and between himself and the album’s addressee. Unlike in much of the material that precedes it, the structure works really well, as Silberman concedes that “We’re fucked / and not getting unfucked soon” to striking effect. On “Two” Silberman’s frustration reaches the boiling point; he tears through verse after verse about everything that had been done to his addressee to ruin her totally and his inability to do anything about it. Again, it’s the horns that sell me here but he delivers the material confidently enough to keep the song from getting lost.
As the album comes to a close, its content gets considerably denser and generally more successful. “Shiva” carries itself entirely on a moment in which Silberman likens his experience with his addressee to becoming her, to genuinely unnerving effect, and “Epilogue” wraps things up with a rewrite of “Bear” as the narrator and his addressee are buried alive. The intended moment of grand catharsis in “Wake” never really transpires; this is, of course, the hardest moment of a record like this one to pull off and in recent memory I can only think of two that nail it completely, which are For Emma closer “Re:Stacks” and The Wrens’ unintentional showstopper “This Is Not What You Had Planned,” in which a single poorly recorded scream achieves something almost unachievable by anything else. In contrast, “Wake” certainly sounds like Silberman has triumphed over something but its eight-minute run time and deliberately anthemic production both work against it.
Wikipedia really should throw in the word “frustrating” somewhere in its blurb on Hospice. I’ve found myself deeply unnerved by its best moments—“Sylvia,” “Bear,” that bit in “Two” when the horns enter as Silberman sings about how his addressee’s father fucked her up—and completely unmoved by almost everything else. It’s a deeply serious and backloaded record. As a breakup narrative, it’s successful. As pop music, it’s either too insular or simply unable to turn Silberman’s own experience into something one would desire to revisit.