“Hospice” at Ten: The Antlers Weren’t Cut Out for Fame, and That’s OK

Before they embark on an intimate anniversary tour, we revisit their third album and remember why they were no Bon Iver-which isn’t a bad thing.

At this time ten years ago, Justin Vernon was quickly developing a new persona as the first artist to get name-dropped when your high school classmates tried introducing you to “indie rock,” with Bon Iver’s breakthrough EP Blood Bank arguably changing the course of popular music in the twenty-first century. From there, of course, the songwriter would go on to assemble a downtempo R&B collective, work with Kanye, win the Best New Artist Grammy an astonishing six years into his career, and coordinate his very own hometown music festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Needless to say, Vernon had no trouble moving past the unanticipated international attention his extremely personal debut LP, For Emma, Forever Ago, received, propelling him to festival stages where he’d project the album’s cripplingly lonely songs to screaming, inebriated audiences until he had a new tracklist ready to take Emma’s place.

At the same time, Brooklynite Peter Silberman’s career was taking a slightly different path. After a pair of solipsistic solo bedroom recordings in 2006 and 2007 under the moniker The Antlers, Silberman turned his project into a proper three-piece for his third self-released record, Hospice, in March 2009. The album—a loosely conceptual and explicitly apocalyptic project about a harsh breakup—found a wide audience in the same Internet circles as For Emma, leading it to be re-released by Frenchkiss later that year. It had widely heard singles—one with guest vocals by Sharon Van Etten, before she was being sampled and covered by Vernon—which you could download for free on just about every music blog. Their sound was analogous to other equally vogue mammalian–titled indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter, and played alongside other article-preceding-noun band names like The National and The Walkmen on Internet radio playlists. The biggest difference between The Antlers and Bon Iver? Silberman never quite seemed to get comfortable with the level of attention his personal trauma was receiving.

“It’s essentially a record about psychological abuse—and guilt,” Silberman was forced to disclose on network television two years later while doing press for Hospice’s hesitant follow-up, Burst Apart, while the interviewer—who condescendingly dubbed their music “mope rock”—preceded to ask sadistically personal questions about the ill-fated relationship that inspired the record. “Hesitant” here is not meant to be a slight to the band, it’s just…how do you resurface after you’ve released something like Hospice, a confessional album intimately detailing a psychologically debilitating experience, which you’re suddenly forced to relive in front of a newly acquired mass audience on a regular basis?

If you haven’t heard the record, it’s hard to express the way Hospice sets itself apart from other traditionally “sad” acts like Bon Iver, The National, or, infamously, James Blake. Silberman’s voice isn’t infused with sorrow—it’s demolished by grief. If I’m ever able to make it through the first two tracks without shedding a tear, I’m still guaranteed to be an emotional wreck by “Sylvia,” when Silberman’s vulnerable falsetto loses its relative composure with the quivering line “let me take your temperature” under the Rome plow of guitar on the second run of the song’s chorus. The record’s first single, “Bear”—an allegory for an abortion, though more so an elegy to the romantic and platonic relationships it destroyed—is the closest thing to an extractable pop song on this cohesive heartbreaking nightmare of a record, though its sobering lyrical content (“And all the while I know we’re fucked, and not getting un-fucked soon” particularly comes to mind) consistently cuts through the track’s lullaby accompaniment.

Setting aside the hardly ignorable lyrics, Hospice’s instrumentals have plenty in common with the band’s previously alluded-to peers: the snowy guitar on “Sylvia” sounds akin to those of The Walkmen, while the improvisational feel of “Two” echoes the ramshackle quality of “Skinny Love.” But the narrative the band creates with these disparate instrumental components—with each individual song and with the record as a whole—is affecting like nothing else: the way the trumpet hits moments after the aforementioned emotional peak on “Sylvia,” the crescendoing guitar tone ripping into the chorus during the aforementioned emotional peak on “Bear,” the surreal and perfectly situated Van Etten cameo on the interlude “Thirteen,” the breathy coos opening “Wake,” the unforgettable conclusion to closer “Epilogue” eerily recalling the final scene of Dancer in the Dark. A devastating combination of defeated vocals and somehow-even-more-defeated lyrics have a way of distracting the listener from the instrumentation, which seems to kick hardest after an especially jarring lyric.

The dysphoric situation the band found themselves in—trying not to be reduced to their most miserable moment while also being honest with their audience—seems like an apt metaphor for their whole career.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the band finally hit the festival circuit in support of Burst Apart—another sad record rife with disturbing imagery, though instrumentally buffered with more stadium-friendly guitars taking some of the spotlight off Silberman’s personal life. Before then, most of the group’s touring was done in opening slots for somber acts like The National and Editors (and, for some reason, Phantogram) while, on the other hand, Bon Iver had been playing festival spots for two years at that point, making their debut at Lollapalooza 2009. The trajectory the band took—releasing the woozy Undersea EP in 2012 and the melancholic LP Familiars two years after that—seemed to have more in common with Radiohead, who indulged the audience they unwittingly accumulated while finding a way to continue to write songs about alienation, both musically and instrumentally.

“Do you worry about becoming classified as a ‘sad’ band?” the ABC News correspondent pressed Silberman, who mostly managed to keep his composure through the brief, torturous conversation (he did get a little irritated at the follow-up question: “Are you a sad guy?”). Understandably cagey, the songwriter tried to explain the complexity of human emotions—as well as the misconception that an artist’s work defines their personality—and the interview abruptly concluded with drummer Michael Lerner stepping in to insist that the band isn’t “stuck in sadtown.” The dysphoric situation the band found themselves in—trying not to be reduced to their most miserable moment while also being honest with their audience—seems like an apt metaphor for their whole career.

It came as no surprise when Silberman announced this past January that the band would be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Hospice with “a handful of intimate shows,” rather than the sort of massive cross-country, arena-stuffing productions their peers have been throwing together. In being one of the undeniable highlights of aughts indie, it’s a record I’ve only mustered the emotional energy to devote fifty minutes of cry time to a few dozen times, almost making it a ritualistic experience rather than a rewarding one. The modest set of seventeen international dates Silberman and Lerner (bassist Darby Cicci is no longer in the band) plan to embark on seems like the only way to reverently recognize a record that feels a little uncomfortable to celebrate—so long as no one lets the press in. FL

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