In the lyric sheet for The Antlers‘ iconic, ten year old breakthrough record Hospice there’s a sentence written for, but unsung in, the Prologue, reading: “I won’t pretend I understand, because I can’t, and know I never will”. I always had that feeling towards this record.
Embedded in a conceptual narrative around a fatal patient <-> nursing-relationship, with hints on abusive relationships, terminal illness, childhood trauma and an ever present Sylvia Plath, the ten songs of Hospice seem to be the epitome of emotional overload. The lasting impact of this record though, ten years after its release, speak another language.
Hospice marked a turning point for Peter Silberman‘s project The Antlers, turning it into a full band. It sparked the career of Silberman’s brainchild. It stood up against the overwhelming mass of shallow, complecant indie music of the fading 00s. And most importantly, it resonates with people to this day.
The concept and the songs of Hospice were born two years earlier though, in a time that Silberman himself described as pretty solitary. It was a typical bedroom project, with Silberman living in a small room in Brooklyn where he just moved after a process of deep personal turmoil that he never really opened up about in detail. He didn’t have to. There’s Hospice.
I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you
Prologue and Kettering, the two songs opening this record, demand attention; something that is inherent to Hospice. This is an album you easily listen to without really paying attention to it until suddenly, somewhere in between, you do and you start to cherish what you’d missed already. It’s a subtle, ambient start; something The Antlers made their trademark: somewhere between the nerdiness of Eno and shoegaze, Arcade Fire‘s epic indie folk and the grandezza of Scott Matthew.
That grandezza first shows in Sylvia with its epic outbursts while the songwriter torments his voice, pleading to “get your head out of the oven”; ultimately resigning: “I hate my voice cause it only makes you angry”. On a sidenote, it is remarkable how Silberman, apart from the fact that he’s really singing his lungs out at many points, sings of injured vocal cords in Hospice, if you keep in mind, how he later really had to deal with that in person.
Ultimately, Sylvia is what got me hooked. And it did because it hits you without warning. It is the first in an ongoing row of songs that perfectly entwine lyrics and music; creating dynamics that mirror the ups and downs of this crumbling relationship that was doomed from the beginning. A lot of guilt is following, a lot of shame, a lot of anger and despair, a lot of sadness. Yes, if there is one thing that Hospice is lacking, it’s fun. There’s hope and strength and dignity. But no ‘insouciance’.
All the while I’ll know we’re fucked and not getting unfucked soon
Be it Bear with its seemingly joyous refrain “we’re too old, we’re not old at all” only ending up in the conclusion that “we’re terrified of one another, terrified of what that means”. Or Two in which everything held back before seems to burst out in a stream of consciousness; along to one of those careless, high-tuned, almost Ukulele-like, acoustic guitars that feel-good indie folk in those years so often misused, Silberman created a song more like a poem than a pop song.
These are the lighthouses; but it’s the quieter songs that really creep you out. Atrophy already depicting the abuse that Two spells out; or Wake that, under huge pain, births the central messages of this album. The Epilogue, needless to say, placing nightmares in the listeners head, making sure this record will not be forgotten.
The hardest thing is never to repent for someone else, it’s letting people in
Silberman once admitted that Hospice is basically an analogy for a former relationship of his, in which he was the “care-giver”. That’s the most obvious level people can relate to: A relationship falling apart; the potentially dysfunctional elements that almost every relationship inherits; the love that makes you endure it.
But Hospice, on a meta level, is also an empowering recording. The way Peter Silberman, with the help of Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner, shaped it and got it out into the world, is inspiring. Out of the solitary experience of writing it, letting friends and help in to further form it; self-release it; get it picked up by a trusted label and by all that, having created a record that deals with such existential things and is celebrated for it 10 years after its release: There’s many lessons to be learned from that.
The Antlers have sounded more refined, have written better songs, evolved as a band after Hospice. The recording and mixing of Hospice is not to be compared with Burst Apart or Familiars – but it exactly sounds the way it has to.
The lesson is though, that to try and pour everything into your music/art/work/private life is something that’ll always resonate with people. Still, this outstanding record might just as well have faded in the orbit of endless music we are surrounded by without ever finding its audience. This exact struggle is weaved in every fibre of Hospice: A frailty, the possibility of failing, the potential hurt that comes with going all-in – and the enormous gratification that potentially comes out of it; there’s no way around that tension, ever. In the end, we’ll all have to deal with hurt and defeat but still keep trying. There’s no irony in that; no irony in Hospice. And I’m thankful for that.
The Antlers are currently embarking on a tour through Europe playing stripped down, acoustic Hospice-shows.