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The Antlers – Hospice

on August 17, 2009, 3:15pm
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What happened to The Antlers’ frontman, Peter Silberman? How much of the band’s new album, Hospice, is taken from actual events, and how much is imagined? The story within this concept album is based on the nightmare scenario that too many of us have experienced or will experience: the death of a loved one from cancer. A hospice is the last stop for many of these victims and, God willing, a peaceful one. With a combination of atmosphere and lyricism, The Antlers’ Hospice is one of the best albums of the year so far.

The story surrounds a young man who meets a cancer patient at the hospice center where he works. The story that unfolds alternates between quiet fury and steadfast love, reminding us that even after a loved one’s death, victims are left behind. After the instrumental “Prologue”, the story begins to unfold in “Kettering”. Silberman’s vocals are produced to give the uneasy feeling of someone chewing food inches away from your ear, creating a sense of unease. With a struggling falsetto, we learn of the worker’s meeting with the sick woman.

Not only is she sick and understandably upset, she is furious. It’s hard to understand how this worker could fall for such a woman, who immediately sends him away upon their introductions. For the worker, however, “something kept me standing by that hospital bed/I should have quit, but instead I took care of you.” After finding it hard to believe she is terminal, the song erupts with drums and sound effects. We are settled in for a difficult journey ahead for both of these characters.

The woman’s name is Sylvia, and a track is dedicated to her name. In “Atrophy”, the narrator tells Sylvia how she’s been treating him (“I’ve been living in bed/Because now you tell me to sleep/I’ve been hiding my voice and my face/And you decide when I eat”). He’s not shouting, he’s worn out. Instead of hearing her response, we hear white noise for a few minutes before the song reaches an acoustic conclusion of the narrator’s calling for help.

The rest of the album tells their tale. “Bear” begins with music from a children’s lullaby, with vocals to match the misleading music. Whether this is a memory from the narrator’s past or Sylvia’s is not made clear, but the memory is of an abortion and its aftermath (“And all the while I’ll know we’re fucked/And not getting un-fucked soon”). The bear of the title is the unborn baby (“He’s loud/Though without vocal cords/We’ll put an end to him”), and its story is a brutal one, with harsh lyrics throughout.

“Thirteen” is a short song sung by Sylvia. This provides another question about the album: Does the number thirteen represent Sylvia’s age? If so, is the relationship between the two more of a sibling love and not a sexual one? Perhaps that is reading too much into it, but the answer is not really supplied (and that’s okay).

Hospice closes strong. There is the breathless delivery over acoustic guitar of “Two” (which must come over fantastically in a live environment). The penultimate track, the epic “Wake”, provides what is either sobbing or loss of breath as its background noise, and this all leads to Silberman’s repeated screaming: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve that!” And with that she is gone.

The guitar-strum of “Epilogue” tells what the rest of us go through after we’ve lost someone close to us. They appear to us in our dreams, sometimes nightmares. The last verse deserves an entry of its own:

When I try to move my arms sometimes
They weigh too much to lift
I think you buried me awake
My one and only parting gift
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.

In your face and uncomfortable, but entirely believable (and to many, relatable), Hospice may be too grim for repeated listening. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to it. It’s a triumph for Silberman, and if this album is any indication, there is still great work to come.

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