Rating: *********' (9.5/10)
When I first listened to the Antlers in late 2008, I shrugged it off as nothing special, but Pop Tarts Suck Toasted was carrying on about this album at such length that I decided to give it a listen. And I was completely taken aback by what I heard.
Hospice is not only an outstanding album, it's one of the most exciting releases since the 90's. I wavered on the rating - sometimes leaning towards 10/10 to help get it into the spotlight it deserves, other times thinking 9/10 would be more appropriate - it's far from perfect and far from the level of the masterpieces it references. In the end, I settled on 9.5 - the highest rating I've given an album to date and also the first time I have ever used a half point. The reason? This album is the most worthy of your attention of any I have ever reviewed (on this blog or elsewhere) - but I don't want to believe this is as good as it's going to get. I want to believe another Loveless or Aeroplane Over The Sea is in the works, and I'm saving the 10/10 for that. But in this meantime, we have this, and this is something.
But to say I enjoy or even like Hospice would be misleading. In fact, it is easily the most unsettling album I have heard in years and for several weeks, it consumed me, even triggering the return of nightmares I thought I had shaken long ago. It's an intensely haunting, profoundly affecting album that will stay with listeners long after the final notes.
On the surface, Hospice is a concept album that intertwines stories of terminal cancer, mental illness and dissolution of a relationship into dysfunction and cruelty. Where these tales intersect is the painful truth that love does not conquer all. The record documents songwriter Peter Silberman's growing awareness of this immutable fact, revealing not only feelings of heartbreak and helplessness, but also, and most importantly, a pervading guilt. The narrator's point of view is always that of a caretaker, seeking to heal, to comfort, to save, and the entire album reads as a confession of failure.
Sonically, Hospice is a creeping ambient lo-fi, as if Radiohead had recorded OK Computer in Thom Yorke's basement. At some moments it assaults the eardrums, while at others, it replicates the shaky hum of life-support machines. But mostly, it is full of subtle sounds breaking up, faltering and struggling under the weight of the album's pain. It is this, the struggle of each sound, that sets Hospice apart from such reference points as OK Computer and Arcade Fire's Funeral. Hospice's best beats are built with shards of static and noise and mixed with such restraint that many listeners may not even notice a drum track at all. Synthesized sounds are prominent, but they never seem like a cheap trick - instead, they mimic the oppressive sterility of the album's hospital setting. The use of horns may be an overblown nod to Neutral Milk Hotel but it's restrained enough to forgive and the other sounds - the weakly bowed banjo, thudding piano chords and shivering guitars - are more inspired. All are masterfully executed.
Over the uneasy ambiance, Silberman's voice carries the album. His high crooning is clear and controlled, but although his tunes and tone are spot-on, there's something unsteady about his delivery - it's the wavering of a young voice delivering painful and personal words. And there is good variety alongside the consistency in his voice, ranging from the surprising dramatics on "Sylvia" to the intimate, homey delivery of "Shiva."
The songwriting on the album is imperfect - the often-understated melodies and the album's tempo make it hard to tie everything nicely together. I think this explains why I didn't get drawn in by Hospice's two singles ("Two" and "Bear") when they were released. But viewing the album as a whole, it becomes much more coherent. Melodies are recycled as Silberman revisits stories and ideas, and viewed in this context, most of the tracks do become memorable, each a unique step in the album's journey.
The only really bad song on the whole album is "Thirteen." The first half is an experiment in loud ambiance that doesn't seem to move the album forward. The second is a short song sung by Silberman and guest vocalist Sharon van Etten. Van Etten is a beautiful singer but the sudden introduction of female vocals is jarring, and the addition of a woman's voice to sing a song subtitled "Sylvia Speaks" takes the album's concept to a level of literalism that is, frankly, goofy.
However, this track is the only outstanding mistake. Hospice's two singles and the album track "Sylvia" are all high points, with engaging rhythms and melodies, identifiable choruses and foot-tappable tempos. And even these are outdone by less structured and more intense tracks like "Atrophy" and "Wake." Rising in and out of murky noise, these songs contain many of Silberman's most uncomfortable revelations.
"Wake" comes second-to-last and marks the climax of the story. It is the album's only true moment of absolution: "Some patients can't be saved / But that burden's not on you / Don't ever let anyone tell you you deserve this." Whenever I listen, it takes a few repetitions for the last line to really sink in, and when it does, it usually brings me to (or past) the brink of tears. Anyone who needs to hear these words needs to hear them over and over again before they can begin to believe it. And when I say "needs," I mean that - for the listeners with whom Hospice resonates (and I know I won't be the only one), this moment, this final refrain, is necessary.
But then again, it's not the final refrain. There is one more track, an understated nightmare that draws narrator and listener alike back into the album's underlying terror. It's not that nothing has been accomplished, it's just that healing is a process without an end. Hospice is mercilessly honest - scars will remain, wounds will reopen and everything will not be alright. Though the emotional strides of Hospice are immense, Silberman seems to realize they are dwarfed by the enormity of the task at hand.
A work of remarkable maturity and profound vision, Hospice doesn't sound like the product of musicians barely in their 20's. Perhaps it's the youth of the members, however, that gives the music its kick - a subtle kick, surely, but enough to hold my famously short attention. It's an imperfect work, of course, but it's still a rare and exciting accomplishment. It's musicians like these who will lead us out of indie rock's dead ends and on a personal level, who will help us mend from life's damages and carry on.
[Antlers on MySpace]