In the hands of a lesser artist, Hospice could have been a complete clusterfuck. A concept album about childhood trauma precipitating adult dysfunction, with nightmares, ghosts, hospital machinery, and attempted suicide, the album could have very easily buckled under the weight of all this sodden imagery and self-seriousness. Yet against all odds, its oxidized bones stubbornly refuse to bend and its spires continue to wind their way heavenward. Having reviewed the sampling of tracks from previous releases on the band’s website, one becomes acutely aware of just how much The Antlers’ founder Peter Silberman has come into his own. From the sleepy, lo-fi folk of Uprooted to the attractive if somewhat staid indie-pop of In the Attic of the Universe, the listener can trace Silberman’s trajectory towards its pinnacle in Hospice. He appropriates the hazy sheen of My Bloody Valentine’s guitar and the fractured folk-punk of Neutral Milk Hotel, reconfiguring them so earnestly and skillfully as to make them all his own.
The ten tracks that make up Hospice tell the story of a young home-care professional who falls in love with a troubled patient and the moving, disastrous love affair that ensues. The story unfolds obliquely through a series of captured moments and monologues. Silberman has a poet’s sense of playfulness with traditional verse structures. Whether it be the intricate weaving of internal and off rhymes in “Kettering” or the nearly unrhymed cacophony of “Sylvia,” he manages to consistently turn the songwriting rulebook on its head without sacrificing pop perfection. The lyrics themselves are every bit as impressive as the way they are put together. Every line aches with the protagonist’s sense of helplessness at watching his loved one’s deterioration, but Silberman takes it one step further, following the speaker into the abyss as affection transforms into alienation and horror. By the time the album draws to a close, the tenderness of “Sylvia” (“I only talk when you are sleeping/ That’s when I tell you everything/ I imagine that/ Somehow you’re going to hear me…”) gives way to the dread of “Epilogue” (“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”). This is narrative songwriting at its finest.
Of the many highlights, “Bear” is perhaps the track that shines most brightly. The soft, Mellotron-tuned keyboard tinkles out the opening bars to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before settling into the sparse, somber groove of the verse. Silberman is at the peak of his lyrical game here, detailing the couple’s dilemma when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy in a manner both elegiac and claustrophobic: “Well we’re not scared of making caves/ Or finding food for him to eat/ We’re terrified of one another/ And terrified of what that means.” Suddenly, the song erupts in a joyful chorus — electric and acoustic guitar, light percussion, a soft feedback haze — undercut only by the confused dialogue between the two speakers: “‘We’re too old’/ ‘We’re not old at all’.” The song perfectly encapsulates the themes of the album as a whole, uniting childhood memories with a very adult sense of defenselessness, juxtaposing love and dedication with a very real sense of romantic estrangement. Silberman himself must recognize the power of the tune, since he reprises it again as an acoustic eulogy in “Epilogue.” (It’s worth pointing out that “Bear” itself is a reprise of the song “Sylvia,” a kind of prelude to the Hospice on the New York Hospitals EP).
In the end, Hospice is a work of rare beauty and a watershed moment in The Antlers’ career. Under Silberman’s guidance, the familiar, melancholy trappings of the album become vessels of emotional significance rather than stand-ins for it. If no one in this band ever goes on to make another record, they can all content themselves in the fact that they helped make this one.