When Peter Silberman self-released the Antlers' second long-player back in March, the last thing he expected was for the first print to sell out as quickly as it did. On top of that, before the second print was even finished, he found his band signed to Frenchkiss Records, and Hospice was promptly remastered and re-released in August. The album recieved rave reviews, particularly from Pitchfork (imagine that, Pitchfork raving about an indie act! How UNUSUAL) and NPR Music, who placed the effort at the top of their "Best of 2009" list. And frankly, the runaway success could not possibly be more deserved.
Hospice is a concept album about, depending on how you look at it, a woman named Sylvia who is terminally ill with bone cancer and her spouse reeling in pain as he watches her die, or a generalized simile for collapsing relationships and the helplessness it spawns. Many different interpretations have been applied to this album, but what is clear is that it's addressing intense sorrow, despondency, and loss with an achingly beautiful flair.
Like the Arcade Fire's modern day classic Funeral, Hospice makes brilliant use of instrumentation to express every nuance of grief, with Silberman's heartbreaking voice wavering over it all. The gloomy yet undeniably rich atmosphere would be suitable for an ambitious post-rock effort, and the simple yet outrageously successful layering is prevalent as well, carrying slow burning tracks like the single Two, and raising comparisons to another iconic album, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Prologue sets Hospice's mood with a brief instrumental, leading into the entrancingly bleak Kettering. When the listener first hears Silberman's voice as he sings, "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you," his hurt comes across in such a big, genuine way, completely free of pretension. Sylvia and Bear, perhaps the most accessible (apart from the aforementioned Two, of course) tracks here, sandwich Atrophy, which is possibly the most painfully poetic song of the lot. This is not because lines like "with the bite of the teeth of that ring on my finger, I'm bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer" are bad, of course; they just feel too authentic for comfort. The former boasts a simple, almost throbbing intro and verse before a shattering chorus with Silberman's suprisingly powerful vocal, shouting, "Sylvia, get your head out of the oven."
The latter paints a barely abstract picture of a couple fractured by an abortion, and features a strangely upbeat chorus which almost resembles the one in Peter Bjorn and John's Young Folks. Despite the scant lyrics in Thirteen, Sharon Van Etten's vocals make them devastatingly effective; her threadbare pleads of "pull me out" and "can't you stop this all from happening? Close the doors and keep them out" are astonishingly moving, complimented by the piano and the smartly applied echo.
The album closes masterfully, pairing the darkly melancholic Shiva with the sweepingly uplifting Wake, which offers us Hospice's first moments of hope and determination, ending with the soothing Epilogue, decorated with Silberman's excellent falsetto.
The Antlers have truly produced something special here. Seldom is such intense reflection delivered with this kind of simultaneous exuberance and vulnerability; Hospice isn't just one of the best records of the year, it may well join the ranks of the great albums that helped influence it.