The Antlers
Hospice
Frenchkiss
4 of 5 stars

Hospice is an album’s album. And it could easily be the downer of the year. Starkly chronicling a man’s angst as he watches his wife expire from bone cancer in the Sloan Kettering Cancer Ward, the record is an epic poem — an abstract narrative pieced together through cutting stream-of-consciousness imagery with raw confessional lyrics.

Establishing a clear-cut protagonist and immersing the listener in what is essentially his nightmare, Hospice boasts a narrative ambition that is incredibly refreshing in today’s let’s-be-cute indie world. The lyrics possess a standalone quality and truly deserve their own rating (and CliffsNotes).

Musically, Hospice is built like a pressure cooker. Slapping together chiming, straightforward pop with avant-garde tangents and melodies shoe-hazed by glitch and drone, the album assumes a hauntingly unstable swagger that chafes icily with the protagonist’s desperation. Intricate melodies and arrangements sulk deep in the mix, wisping around frontman Peter Silberman’s amorphous tenor like a dense fog. Upon repeated listens, songs that initially seem to laze by on sparse frameworks unveil themselves to be lush fever dreams.

During an impromptu listen to the seven-minute “Atrophy,” Silberman’s vaguely violent lyrics about castration threats and glass bullets take center stage while the ambient acoustics passively lull by. But with headphones and some time, it becomes clear the music is anything but an afterthought or a vessel for Silberman’s gutting poetry. The album is like a “Magic Eye” book for depressives, harboring dormant melodies in wintry studio murk and icy guitar feedback that doesn’t whine so much as it weeps.

It’s Hospice’s largely funereal pace that makes its erratic sonic booms all the more rewarding. The album is all about context and juxtaposition, clambering along with a nervous energy of unpredictability, using its wincing restraint as a loaded spring for its louder, more upbeat moments. The surges of straightaway rock during the choruses of “Sylvia” and “Bear” are ejaculatory when sandwiched between the sleepy wallow of warped dirges (“Wake”) and swirling ambiance (“Thirteen”).

“Kettering” builds an uncanny pressure while Silberman sings about a significant other being hooked up to tubes “singing morphine alarms out of tune” in a velvety falsetto croon laced sinisterly with a subtle sexual menace that clashes uncomfortably with the grim lyrics. When Silberman warbles “they told me that there was no saving you” over the song’s sparsely unnerving piano line, there’s a spine-chilling beat before the track explodes cathartically into a well-earned heat chamber of buzzing guitars, crackly drums and ethereal shoegaze swoons. The entire album functions on these unstable cycles of emotion, both lyrically and musically.

With such drab subject matter, Hospice could’ve easily wound up an overcooked pot of mawkishly earnest doom and gloom. But Silberman manages a stabbing brand of dark humor that keeps the album from taking itself too seriously without ever compromising its bite. Lines like “and all the while I’ll know we’re fucked and not getting un-fucked soon” tread an impeccably uncomfortable line between tongue-in-cheek jest and morbidity.

Hospice is a lot of things. It’s a grower for sure. It’s a record that’s meant to be listened to as a record. It’s a triumphantly tight combination of experimental decay and pop sensibility. It’s also a worthy addition to the ever-growing genre of fantastic breakup records. While the mangled lyrics can be taken quite literally as the depiction of a man helplessly watching his wife die in her hospital bed as he lies beside her, they work just as well as a gritty allegory for the anguished deterioration of a highly dysfunctional relationship. And when Silberman invites all you hopeless romantics to be “buried awake” with him in his hospital bed, you should probably just cave. You’ll feel better after.

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