Radiohead may have grabbed all the headlines when they gave fans the chance to pay what they liked for In Rainbows, effectively giving their music away for free to some people, but others have been quietly doing exactly that for years. One such act was The Antlers, who back when I discovered them after reading the Kwaya Na Kisser music blog consisted of just Peter Silberman. He released the ep, In the Attic of the Universe, as a free download for a while, it was marvellous, full of ambient atmospherics, was followed by another ep, Cold War, and then I sort of lost track. Big mistake. The Antlers now consist of Silberman, Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner and their first album proper is a difficult listen which rewards your effort if you stick with it. The sound has been fleshed out but the attention to detail remain and Silberman's gift for creating an atmosphere remains undiminished. Elliot Smith, Grandaddy, and Arcade Fire are acts that spring to mind when trying to make comparisons so if any of those entice or you have a thing for Sylvia Plath then read on.
Ok, so a concept album set in a hospice dealing with the death of a loved one from bone cancer is going to be the kind of CD that plenty of people are just not going to want to listen to, no matter how good it is, or how uplifting the experience might be. That's fine. Nothing I write here could force anyone to do anything but the difficult subject matter and the fact that no matter how sensitive you are with them, lyrics which include words to do with medical procedures or instruments are always going to sound a bit clunky, shouldn't deter you away from an accomplished album.
Silberman has been reticent in interviews to go into too much detail about the story behind this album. It certainly comes from somewhere personal and based on the lyrics and song titles we are listening to an album inspired by the loss of someone to bone cancer in the Sloan Kettering cancer ward in New York. Very feintly at the beginning of Prologue you can hear a sound similar to a respirator before a reversed cymbal ushers in the echoey chords and choral voices that begin the album. Kettering starts with a quiet piano before Silberman's voice, the microphone so close you can hear every breath and mouth noise, tells of his first encounter with the patient they call a 'hurricane thunder cloud', and whom he will stick beside despite being rejected initially (because of the tone of his voice). The quiet piano stabs and vocals swell into something much grander, backed up by electronic reverb and strings, before breaking down again at the end. My reference to Sylvia Plath earlier comes due to the track that bears her name, the one track on the album that I'm still struggling to fully appreciate. Perhaps it's hearing Silberman's usually quiet and graceful voice wailing or the slightly grandiose feel to the song. Either way it does at least communicate well the anger of this person he is attempting to soothe and talk to.
That devotion is made plain in Atrophy where he sings that he's '...bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer./I'd happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself.' The gentle piano is accompanied by the ambient sounds that Antlers produce so well, and which in fact bury the melody in the middle of the track before an acoustic guitar brings Silberman back in - almost two tracks in one. A similar trick to Radiohead's No Surprises is pulled on Bear where a glockenspiel-like melody plays under a song whose lyrics use images of abortion and the unforgettable line 'And all the while I'll know we're fucked/And not getting unfucked soon.' If I described the music of this track as jaunty you'll get an idea of the contradictions on this album.
The euphoric guitar swell of Thirteen lifts up into ethereal vocals before the track that had me thinking of Arcade Fire the most begins. Two has those dense, narrative lyrics that made Funeral such a satisfying album used in this case to detail the troubled relationship of this couple. 'I didn't mind the things you threw, the phones I deflected./I didn't mind you blaming me for your mistakes,/I just held you in the doorframe through all of the earthquakes.' At the end of it all there is just the two of them. A farewell of sorts is made in Shiva where Silberman sings of her ring left in his fist. The dense lyrics return again on Wake which is punctuated by what sounds like an amplified in-breath, the song a kind of taking stock, of moving beyond the point of death, letting people back into his life. It is here that Silberman addresses himself I think, as a vast organ fills out the final lines, the last one repeated again and again, 'Some patients can't be saved, but that burden's not on you./Don't ever let anyone tell you you deserve that.'
With the Epilogue Silberman returns to some of the imagery of haunting that has appeared earlier but this time it is a question of redemption, of finding some kind of solace and, that most American of terms, closure. 'But you return to me at night,/Just when I think I may have fallen asleep./Your face is up against mine,/And I'm too terrified to speak./You're screaming,/And cursing,/And angry,/And hurting me,/And then smiling,/And crying,/Apologizing.' The music and voice appear in their most unadorned or enhanced state, his voice floating in that area that Jeff Buckley used so well. As I said earlier you may not want, or be able to listen to an album that makes so painfully clear the toll of caring for a loved one through chronic and fatal illness but there is something incredibly powerful about what Antlers have taken on in their début album. It will always be there waiting for those who will understand it when they want it.