Hospice was not just a breakthrough moment from a fresh-faced band. The debut album by Peter Silberman and the newly-minted lineup for his one-time solo bedroom project, The Antlers, was a work of singular vision and purity, the likes of which few artists of any medium achieve. Delving deep into the springs of indie rock, Silberman and company created an album that transformed familiar conventions through brilliant songcraft; dense, evocative language and imagery; and powerful, complex emotion. Hospice, then, would be a tough act to follow, so The Antlers have decided that Burst Apart, their follow-up album, would not compete on the same terms, doing away with arguably the most distinctive elements of its predecessor: the lavish, claustrophobic, emotionally eviscerating narrative and lyrical density. Instead, the focus shifts to individual songs and the variety of moods and textures they convey. While Hospice was by no means lacking in variety, the powerful thematic undercurrents had a way of uniting everything together. Burst Apart, by contrast, seems almost restless, scurrying this way and that, eager to uncover heretofore unexplored possibilities within The Antlers’ aesthetic universe.
Opening track “I Don’t Want Love” eases the listener into the album with a dense, soothing harmony. Chirping synths and ringing chimes help to create an ethereal atmosphere reminiscent of Hospice’s hazy dreamscapes, but there’s a sharply defined melody steering the song into poppier waters. It’s lovely, but things don’t really start to cook until three tracks in. Followers of the Chocolate Grinder will doubtless be familiar with the sinister slink and jive of “Parentheses”: the repetitive drum loop, the subtle foreboding in its slow-funk bass line, and the dry, angular guitar (Does anyone else hear just a hint of “Saint Huck” in this song?) are unlike anything the band has released. The song flows right into the warm electronic melancholy of “No Widows,” a hauntingly slow, dirge-like nugget of synth pop. Other highlights include the Spanish guitar-inflected tale of destructive romance “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and the raw nerves-on-edge lament of “Putting the Dog to Sleep.”
Silberman cites electronic music as an influence on Burst Apart, specifically the fragile balance between repetition and variation that much of it hinges upon. You can find evidence of these explorations in Michael Lerner’s clipped drum patterns in the aforementioned “Parentheses,” but nowhere is this more clearly heard than in “Rolled Together,” a song that consists of only two lines of words. The Antlers do an impressive job of folding the genre’s conventions into their own M.O., although not always without cost. One of Silberman’s intentions was to throw the focus more on individual lines, but more often than not, the repetition simply pushes the lyrics into the background. But while his words have grown sparser, Silberman’s voice has become more prominent. Whereas Hospice’s production would occasionally bury him beneath a bed of distortion or leave him exposed in a flat, emotionally drained murmur, most of the songs on Burst Apart derive their resonance from Silberman’s astonishing vocal range, which proves a more than adequate tool for propelling the drama.
Overall, Burst Apart shows The Antlers to be on sure footing, playing to their strengths, but confident enough in their own instincts to depart from some of the qualities that made them the indie rock wunderkinds of 2009. While Silberman’s use of language remains inventive and engaging, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little disappointed that the album doesn’t float to the high-water mark in storytelling they had previously set. No single lyric on Burst Apart hits me with the same ferocity as the best ones off Hospice. Nevertheless, it would be a little curmudgeonly to focus too heavily on the album’s shortcomings when there are so many positives. At its best, Burst Apart is a delicate, varied work that hints that we’ve only begun to see what this group is capable of.