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Dave Lichterman / KEXP

When the Antlers released Hospice in 2009 on Frenchkiss Records, the band established itself as a project of personal catharsis for its frontman, Peter Silberman. Designated a concept album, Hospice channeled Silberman’s past romantic failures into a story of two individuals confined to a cancer ward: a hospice worker and the terminally ill patient he gradually falls in love with.

Mirroring the dynamics of a deteriorating relationship, the situation confronts the narrator with the inevitable death of his lover—or in a more general sense, the separation of two individuals. Blighted, the narrator escapes in euphemism, Silberman’s lyricism both devastating and innocuous: “There’s a bear inside your stomach/ a cub’s been kicking you for weeks.” The emotions evoked in Hospice can be best summarized in the closing lyrics of its final track “Epilogue”: “You’re screaming and cursing and angry and hurting me/ and then smiling and crying/ apologizing.” Even now, I am sometimes hesitant to play the record and bind myself to the accompanying cathartic listening experience.

Blending luscious, ambient instrumentation and difficult subject matter, the Antlers’ first LP released to critical acclaim with critics like Brian Howe acknowledging that “Silberman’s affecting earnestness… allows him to pull off lines like, ‘All the while I know we’re fucked/ And not getting un-fucked soon,’ while sounding more spiritual than cynical.” Grieving the universal sorrow associated with the death, the music was a genuine creation, lacking the pretentiousness commonly associated with manufactured sentiment.

However, as the album became increasingly popular, listeners began overlooking Silberman’s sincerity, coining condescending, reductive genre labels like “cancer-core” or “sadcore”. Diminishing the efforts of the band, ignorant Internet commentators slowly reduced Silberman’s project of personal catharsis to a model of melodrama—a disservice to the nakedness of Hospice.

Five years later, the band debuted their most recent effort Familiars at Rough Trade, presenting the first fifty purchasers of the vinyl an intimate performance before departing on a tour across the United States. Rough Trade, located on 64 North 9th Street, is a Williamsburg mainstay, offering both a diverse selection of records and a hangout space frequented by music enthusiasts.

The Antlers were set to perform in their own Brooklyn backyard, showcasing their efforts to the individuals of their daily encounters. As a fan of their first record, I anticipated a triumphant display, hoping the band would channel the emotions of Hospice into a more accessible, melodic work.

However, the concert itself was unusual. Without a word, the band appeared on stage and played through Familiars in its entirety, Silberman letting out a meek “thank you” before exiting. Following the track listing of the album exactly, their playing seemed like one final dress rehearsal, privy only to the respectfully solemn, silent audience. 

The performance felt to me like a funeral; the trumpets an elegiac accompaniment to Silberman’s voice as they mused over past exertions. Nevertheless, the work craved independence from past associations, yearning for “a world far less demanding” than the one that received it.    

Opening with the song “Palace,” Silberman crooned, “You were simpler/ you were lighter when we thought like little kids/ Like a weightless, hate-less animal/ beautifully oblivious” seemingly responding to accusations of mawkishness directed at him in the past. The music mirrored its lyricism, the breakdown of trumpets and drums commemorating and celebrating the passing of their past album, and all the emotions it invoked with it. “Palace” immediately presented Familiars as not only a work of reflection, but also as a movement forward to express some beauty inherent to sincerity—as at that moment, the crowd seemed “beautifully oblivious” to the Antlers’ previous work, engaged in immediate conversation with a band that released their breakout record over five years ago.   

The climax of the album “Parade” baffled concertgoers. While the lyrics triumphantly rang: “So then we lie down in our field and just do nothing at all/ and I’m getting ready for when everything is wonderful,” the audience stared wide-eyed, as if privy to some naïve, embarrassing thought.

There was a disjunction between Silberman’s familiar falsetto cries and his optimism—presenting a different passivity from Hospice: one where everything ends up working out. Again facing the inevitability of death, Silberman seemed to move past the concept of loss, finally accepting his place in the human condition. The result was an atypical requiem, one that celebrated mortality as a force that contextualizes the pleasures of living.

The crowd stayed behind after the band finished up “Refuge” the final track of the album. The fifty faces stared at the unmanned instruments on the stage as if anticipating an explanation for the emotions presented to them—perhaps in the form of an encore in one of the band’s earlier songs, creating some semblance of unity. However, the audience was left waiting and, one by one, they exited the performance space, clutching their copies of the record like relics of some sacred ritual. Outside the venue, looking outward across the Hudson River towards Manhattan, I was overcome with the lit lights of the city skyline—remembering “Refuge”’s adage that “it’s not our house that we remember/ it’s a feeling outside it when everyone’s gone but we leave all the lights on anyway.” Here was the materialized sentiment. The motive to keep memories pure and old records playing.

Experiencing some inexplicable feeling of longing, I found myself revisiting the lyrics of Hospice. Listening to this first record, I discovered a lyric in “Bear,” their most famous track that helped to illuminate the bridge between Hospice and Familiars:

“We’re too old.”

“We’re not old at all.”

“Just too old”

“We’re not old at all.”

Acknowledging and refusing the monikers placed on them, the Antlers have found some space amid being “not old at all” and “too old”—living and disappearing—that compels the individual to memorialize the moment, resulting in songs that are personally revealing yet infinitely relatable.