You Oughta Know: The Antlers
A single piano plays a desolate melody as machines beep and breath.
“While I was checking vitals I suggested a smile / You didn’t talk for a while, you had reason / You said you hated my tone (it made you feel so alone) / and so you told me I ought to be leaving. / But something kept me standing by that hospital bed / I should have quit but instead I took care of you. / You made me sleep at unevens, and I didn’t believe them / when they told me that there was no saving you…”
“Kettering” is the first proper song on The Antlers’ heart-evaporating 2009 masterpiece Hospice. The record is a concept album telling the story of a hospice worker who falls in love with (his/her, I think her) patient, a young girl dying of bone cancer*. If it sounds heavy, it’s crushing, and yet fleeting but detectable traces of sunlight sneak in around the edges. The album is incredibly deep not just musically, but thematically, posing questions about what it really means to be in love, whether communing souls will follow each other into the afterlife, and if death can ever lend us anything beyond sadness and loss.
The record doesn’t make it easy; it is at once disorientingly noisy and plaintively intimate, despairing and hopeful. (And don’t worry; if you’re at least a few listens in, it’s probably weirder if you’re not weeping uncontrollably at the end of “Wake” than if you are…)
The Antlers had technically released two “albums” before Hospice, but those (2006s Uprooted and 2007s In the Attic of the Universe) were largely lo-fi bedroom affairs written and performed entirely by Brooklyn front man Peter Silberman. It wasn’t until Hospice that Antlers made their first fully realized statement as a group.
Since then they’ve made two others, the first of which is the followup Bust Apart, from 2011. Less conceptually driven than its predecessor, Burst Apart is no less rich with sweeping, widescreen arrangements and wistful musings on love lost and leaving. Opener “I Don’t Want Love” is a grinning reprisal about the inescapable superficiality of sex, while closer “Putting the Dog to Sleep” hinges on a metaphor so apt the song might actually be about canine euthanasia. In between there are orchestral post-rock compositions, some heavy In Rainbows-era Radiohead influence, and a song about the moments just after an A-bomb has exploded in your town and death is a few seconds away. Like Hospice it’s a heavy listen, but one that continually draws the listener closer to see the hidden filigree.
And then there’s Undersea, which despite its four songs and EP-length running time, may be the band’s most complex and fully realized work to date. Imagined as a concept EP about sinking into the ocean and floating around, the record’s ability to evoke submersion — and a lonesome contentment — is truly remarkable. Its four songs run the gamut from Sigur Ros-ish post-rock (“Endless Ladder”), to Portishead-ish trip hop (“Crest”), but always feel unified in tone; this record makes you feel like you’re under the ocean, it’s that simple.
Currently the Antlers haven’t yet announced plans for their next album, but it would surprise me greatly if they’re done. Over the last several years they’ve created some of the most beautiful and effecting music of this or any era. They haven’t ratcheted up the speed, but the Antlers are rolling downhill, and quite enjoying it.
Stream Hospice here:
Stream Burst Apart here:
Stream Undersea here:
*Though it is, admittedly, inviting of other more allegorical interpretations…