The Antlers released Hospice in 2009 in the middle of a national debate over health care. It was the summer of townhalls and dining room tables, death panels and disarray. For a mid-major band, Hospice was kind of a big deal; stories flurried about the Antlers’ desiccated leader and the empty bottles of Jack he built the record on. Some argued Hospice wasn’t a concept record about caring for a sick person, at all; it was a really trenchant metaphor for a dying relationship. What made it one of the best albums of the decade was the sense it made from either direction; both concept and metaphor moved you in mysterious ways. You could make puns about public options, or you could just eddy in the sullen marshes of “Kettering” or “Bear” or “Thirteen” and nobody would bother you.
There being absolutely no Brooklyn bullshit about the Antlers, the Hospice follow-up was never bound to be anything much; if anyone can handle a little pressure it’s Peter Silberman. For awhile he tinkered with a military-based set of songs called Purple Heart — awesome as that sounds, he’d have been killed for making Hospice 2. (That’s if I know my dyspeptic rock-critic friends like I think I do.) Purple Heart faded into a featureless mist of barely-there textures and fragments that Silberman began to pull together on his laptop. Then the band came in and, for the first time, wrote the songs together.
So Burst Apart is more collaborative and, naturally, less subjective than Hospice was. Silberman still stretches his vocals impossibly thin under big blocks of sound, but dare I say there’s actual warmth to be found, like a t-shirt on a radiator? I still don’t know if Silberman can actually sing, but let’s face it: not sounding like an emotional cripple all the time is not negative.
Still, “I Don’t Want Love” opens the record with the lyric “you want to climb up the stairs/ I wanna push you back down.” So there’s still no funny stuff, romantically. Song titles include “No Widows,” “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” (really, I don’t know how Silberman beat everyone else to that particular nightmare) and “Putting The Dog To Sleep”; it’s like Silberman is trying to talk death itself off the ledge. (Maybe now that he himself no longer occupies it.) When I first played Burst Apart my girlfriend wanted to know what kind of sick fucks release music this sad on the brink of summer.
But It’s all extraordinarily lovely. Inevitably, someone’s going to tell you all the knife-edged space and painterly atmospherics add up to just a rinse of OK Computer. Don’t listen. Radiohead is no band to be accused of sounding like and if Burst Apart makes use of similar layers, there’s room at the altar.
All the instruments are impeccably isolated and some new additions — organ, muted horns and bells and things — make the sound even bigger, in places, than Hospice got. Even the more minimal arrangements are hued by a kind of desolate warmth that’s almost Joshua Tree-like in its capacity (if you’re really looking for touchstones). If Burst Apart lacks anything it’s a singular, darkly addictive track like “Bear“; the new material is more diffuse than that. At this point the Antlers are more interested in process than outcomes, and they’re endlessly interesting because of it.
Stream: The Antlers – “Parentheses”