The Antlers’ Hospice is a story album in the same vein of Lou Reed’s Berlin and that indie-rock Mount Rushmore candidate In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but the album’s narrative arc about a symbiotic relationship between a dying woman and the man she has paid to take care of her is the last thing you get around to noticing. From the opening hum of “Prologue” through the sun-through-the-curtains mood of “Epilogue,” an oppressive sonic austerity envelops the album, as Antlers replicate the sterility and blinding whiteness of a modern hospital. Just on its music alone, Hospice would work well as the soundtrack for a nightmarish horror film set in a psych ward.
Hospice, Antlers’ first album as a full band, was self-released earlier this year, and re-released now via Frenchkiss thanks to enthusiastic fan response. Hospice’s roots are in the more than a year leader Peter Silberman spent checked out from his social life after moving to Manhattan. Therefore it’s not hard to connect Hospice’s themes — loneliness, isolation and jealousy — to his life. For instance, “None of our friends will come, they dodge our calls, and they have for quite a while now,” Silberman sings in his trademark quavering falsetto before unleashing the grinding strings and ever-moving percussion of “Bear.”
The narrative forms the backbone of Hospice, but unlike albums that get bogged down in the story (like, say, Decemberists’ Hazards of Love), Hospice’s foremost focus is the songs, and there are some great ones here. “Sylvia” explodes repeatedly over feedback squalls as Silberman shouts and somehow rhymes “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven/ Go back to screaming and cursing, remind me again how everyone betrayed you.” Album centerpiece “Two” maintains its sense of explosive lyrical (the words describe the relationship falling apart and exploding lights) and musical energy despite never really changing tempo or instruments from the strummed guitars that push the song into the light. “Wake” floats and haunts like its namesake, making aware the important information but never rising above a deferential whisper. And not enough can be said about “Bear,” the album’s highlight, which showcases the best of Antlers’ yarn-spinning and songcraft.
Hospice only falters when it lends too much time to instrumentals (“Thirteen” and most of “Atrophy”) that can become as tedious as spending days (or weeks) in a hospital. But as a whole over the course of its 10 tracks, Hospice mixes the personal and fictional in a way that few indie albums outside releases from Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel tend to do. Granted, Antlers aren’t in that league yet, but Hospice positions them as one of the more exciting young bands in indie rock today.