What type of feeling might you experience if you were to go to a hospital on a Sunday afternoon and sit bedside with someone and witness the effects of a constant morphine drip, then hear the grim results of tests, and then at the end of the day know that your kindness and watchfulness wouldn’t really make much difference? And what if you were to converse with this person, getting to know all about her, understanding the life she lives, her feelings, got to know that her time was coming soon and that she was slowly slipping into the oblivion of death? At hearing the prospect of sitting through such a smorgasbord of near-death activities most people would invariably shy away instantly. Why? Sitting through a whole day of caring for near-death people would pile on a whole heap of emotions, feelings that would cause me to question my own place in the world, but I would also experience an enormous emotional outpouring that would put into perspective my own personal relationships. That’s this record…kinda.
So if you listen to indie music at all and read online reviews just a little bit, then you have certainly heard of The Antlers, a band propelled by the creative genius of Peter Silberman. Mr. Silberman seems quite adept at capturing the cold and sparse world of, what appears to be at first glance, hospice care. I know, that doesn’t sound that compelling at first, but Silberman executes on the idea more than well. His concept album revolves around the sometimes ethereal, sometimes harrowing, often melancholic, and ultimately mournful moments of providing hospice care for a terminally ill person.
Take for example the album’s first single, “Two.” The six-minute song begins soft and melancholic as most of the songs on the LP do and slowly builds to a soft crescendo. In addition to the sounds, the lyrics offer more compelling fair both at first look, but also at the intangible metaphorical level. The lines “They stuck you in the sheets, so close to dying / they should have listened / they thought you were lying… / no one payed attention when you just stopped feeding” out of context seem like notes from a caregivers diary, but when looked at metaphorically, and in the context of lines later in the song, like “I just held you in the door frame / through all the earthquakes,” and “No one listens / no one understands,” and “two ways to tell the story / no one worries” and on and on, the listener has to give the song more shrift than being just a diary. It intimates at loss, interactions between two people, interactions with the oblivious outside world, and then by posing these elements using the refrain “two,” the pain of loss, disconnection, desertion, and the prospect of death by abandonment and old age all become that much more heartbreaking. It’s a six-minute cryer.
Hospice is a heartbreaking record from start to beginning, yet it’s not an “emo” record in the slightest sense. Unlike many emo bands I’ve heard, it’s sincere and wise in conveying its subject matter. Silberman, instead of writing lyrics about how his girlfriend doesn’t pay enough attention to him, or how his heart is spewing blood out of his chest because she left him, uses the metaphor of getting down to 86 pounds for lack of using the feeding tube to signify the emotion of abandonment and loss.
“Kettering,” the track in which the listener first hears Silberman’s voice, was also my first experience with the band, and the composition and lyrics work perfectly with each other (see the video below). The song begins with a slow piano chord repeated for about a minute, then Silberman starts his slow, soft crooning, something like Jeff Buckley at his softest. It is “Kettering” that introduces the listener to all the best parts of what The Antlers are. The lyrics immediately point the listener towards a relationship, as the singer explains his connection with an unnamed someone, but instead of singing about a burgeoning love, the song’s speaker feels that he owes the person he’s about to care for. The theme of selflessness pervades this song as the speaker continues to help the bed-ridden person, even while knowing that the person will ultimately die.
The song works around an intangible idea of hope and care. In “Kettering” the speaker says “…you told me I ought to be leaving. But something kept me standing by that hospital bed, I should have quit but instead I took care of you.” And then the music goes up a level as somewhat heavy drums come in and a loudish guitar line takes over. It was at this moment that I was hooked on the album. As I write this review I still can’t quite put my finger on why this moment in the song got me. At the superficial level I try to understand why someone would take care of another who doesn’t want the help and who is destined for imminent death, but at the metaphorical level I am perplexed by what this situation means. Could it be a sign that explains the speaker’s growth towards understanding death and how humans must eventually face it? Or could it be the speakers inability to simply let go, or maybe it’s his desire to simply be there for another who doesn’t really desire his presence? Maybe the message is much more simple than that.
The metaphorical qualities of this LP keep me guessing, which I am sure is part of why I enjoy it so much. The music keeps me coming back too. Despite the metaphorical nightmares that sew the album’s plot together (whatever they may be for you), the music, with the at times hopeful acoustic closing of “Epilogue,” the atmospheric swoon of “Shiva,” and the heartbreak of “Wake,” all the while accompanied by Silberman’s melancholic vocal delivery, provides the listener with a visceral glimpse into human emotions, showing the collision of animate with the soulful, evincing the personal and the real of death, and manifesting how these tangibles and intangibles conflict and resolve each other. Hospice is about love, about loss, about mourning, but more, it’s about giving without hope of reciprocation.