Monday, May 2, 2011
Album: Burst Apart
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Rating: ******** (8/10)
It would be difficult for me to overstate the impact that the Antlers' debut album, Hospice, had on me when I first started listening to it in early 2009. The arrival of my review copy coincided with a moment in my life when I was turning to face certain demons in my past. Hospice put into words, into sounds and into metaphor what I couldn't - the feelings of guilt and confusion that haunt us in the wake of abuse by a loved one. (Many critics seem unable to grasp metaphor and insist the album is about a dying friend, but Peter Silberman, Antlers' songwriter and singer, stated in interviews that the album was about the breakup of an abusive relationship.) I was at a dark point and felt no one could understand - until I heard Silberman singing exactly what I was trying to express. Hospice was a comfort to me, and a guide, and the first time I felt any absolution from the guilt that had pervaded my life for over a year.
So it's impossible that the Antlers' sophomore release would live up to that standard. Hospice grew out of an experience that was not chosen and out of Silberman's subsequent search for understanding and absolution from those closest to him. It's an intensely personal album that always sounded like it was directed more towards friends and family than to an audience of unknown fans. (After all, when Antlers wrote the album, they didn't have fans. I remember seeing them at Cake Shop in January 2009 with a whopping 15 people.)
As much as I touted Hospice, as much as I wanted that album to reach everyone who needed it, I knew success would likely doom the band to musical mediocrity. But when I saw the name, cover art and track listing for Burst Apart, I began to suspect the band was going to pull it off.
And they have. They made good decisions, particularly in not trying to make Hospice, Part 2. Burst Apart is not a concept album and surprisingly, it's not bloated at all. The band also found a way to take advantage of actually having money to record and to become more radio-friendly without capitulating to trend or losing their unique sound. Indeed, Burst Apart's most notable accomplishment lies in the way it establishes the Antlers' sonic identity, staying true to the musical ideas explored in Hospice but also growing naturally into the band's audibly higher production budget. The band passed their toughest challenge with more sure-handedness than anyone could have expected.
The Antlers have said that they wanted to explore a broader emotional range on their second album and hope to establish that they aren't just sad. But with song titles like "No Windows," "Every Night My Teeth are Falling Out" and "Putting the Dog to Sleep," Burst Apart isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. The album is still melancholy, but it is infused with hope and redemption.
"I Don't Want Love" is the perfect opener. It recycles a melody from Hospice (an album that was defined by its reappearing melodic themes) while showcasing the band's shiny new sound, larger and brighter than anything on the first album. The song is breathtaking, one of the band's best to date, all glimmering layers of guitar and synth. It shows a band ready to pick up where they left off and move forward into new territory - musically and emotionally.
Despite successfully establishing the Antlers' identity, the album does suffer in some production choices. In particular, there often seems to be a disconnect between the many layers in the sound. It's obvious the band is not attempting to recreate a live sound, nor should they, but the studio imprint on Burst Apart, the gaps between each instrumental line, dilutes the album's humanity and damages its sincerity. In addition, the heavy effects, mostly reverb, put on the drums often come off as a bit cheesy and lacking in subtlety.
The second song, "French Exit," is a great, radio-ready pop hit, but it suffers from an uncharacteristically bad mix - the synth that carries the melody between vocal strands is far too high in the mix, effectively killing the actual complexity of sound behind it. It's an odd error for a band that usually excels in this area, particularly given how low Silberman's vocals are mixed throughout much of the record. Still, the strong songwriting makes "French Exit" a single-worthy, if flawed, track.
Next up, "Parentheses" shows a grittier, darker side of the Antlers. Silberman's high voice often recalls Thom Yorke, but here the elliptical dub-style bass and crunchy guitar scream Radiohead. While the song fails to quite reach its potential, it hints at what this band may be capable of, at what we might hear from them in years to come.
The middle of the album does drag a bit. There aren't any bad songs in the bunch and quite a few interesting ideas such as the juxtaposition of frail sounds (e.g. banjo) against swelling seas of synth or the low-mixed syncopation that pins down many songs. "Rolled Together" stands out, a brilliantly understated, bluesy ballad that drifts gently into existence but never builds much beyond a whisper. "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" is another signature Antlers' song, boasting one of their best melodies yet. Still, sandwiched between weak tracks, these gems fail to generate the momentum they should. "Tiptoe" is probably the album's weakest point, a two-minute instrumental, that (mostly because the muted trumpet) doesn't fully mesh with the rest of the album - instead of building a bridge into the following track, it stagnates a bit.
"Hounds" is put in an unenviable position - a five minute track near the end, it's hard not to take it as some sort of intended climax. Twinkling guitars and distant-yet-warm vocals envelope the listener. The song may fall short of the masterpiece it's meant to be, but its restrained melodic hooks and subtle horns are triumphant and leave no doubt of the band's growing maturity and sophistication.
But the two closing tracks may be the album's greatest achievement. The lullaby hymn "Corsicana" treads lightly, but its sparse melody is deceptively powerful. The final song, "Putting the Dog to Sleep," is simply devastating. His clear voice punctuated by R&B guitar and bare-bones drums, Silberman is at his best. In some ways, the song sounds very much like Hospice, the compelling melody, the searing pain, the brutal lyrics. But it also shows how far the band has come, seamlessly incorporating new influences (like R&B), breaking the sound wide open, at once gigantic and sparse, vaulted in a way the claustrophobic Hospice never was.
Burst Apart is not as flooring a personal accomplishment as its predecessor, but it shows the Antlers at a new level of professionalism. And most importantly, it establishes the Antlers have greatness in them. It's rare that a young band can establish such a distinctive voice for themselves, especially in the wake of such a rapid rise to fame in 2009. It's a signpost, a foreshadowing of greatness to come. The Antlers have what it takes to change the course of independent music. They may still sink into banality, but if Burst Apart is any indication, Antlers have something earth-shattering in them. It's not here yet, but it's in them, that identity and drive that only comes along a few times in a decade. I knew it when I first saw them live and when I first heard Hospice - these guys are something special.