“Hospice,” the debut album from The Antlers, isn’t a record you should throw on to get the party started. Chronicling a relationship with a terminally ill patient and the mental abuse that patient inflicts on her caretaker, it’s an epic, emotional trip of broken dreams, lost love, resentment and loss. As a vehicle to entertain, “Hospice” could be considered a failure. But the intention of the 10 tracks, and the manner in which they work together, is not to amuse, but instead to illuminate, enlighten and confess.
After an atmospheric “Prologue,” gently chiming keyboards pave the way for Peter Silberman’s otherworldly voice, which bears similarities to Loney Dear (aka Emil Svanšngen) and Jonsi of Sigur Ros. In the hospital room, the patient gets short with the narrator, asking him to leave. But he stays. “Something kept me standing by that hospital bed/ I should have quit/ But instead I took care of you,” Silberman sings. In “Sylvia,” gauzy keyboards and guitars swirl as Silberman tells the strange story of the title character, who tried to kill herself by sticking her head in an oven. A horn coda announces the song’s end.
In “Atrophy,” we learn that the patient suffered gunshot wounds; whether or not the patient is “Sylvia” is unknown. Gentle humming mimics the whir of hospital equipment as the singer begins to regret his allegiance: “I’m bound to your bedside/ Your eulogy singer/ I’d happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself.” The singer has a ring on his finger, too, so maybe Sylvia is his wife.
The uneasiness of the situation is expanded upon — thanks to spare arrangements and Silberman’s stunning vocals — in “Bear,” in which the singer compels his partner to get an abortion. “No one ever has to know,” he sings, wishing to sidestep adult situations and continue his early 20s carefree lifestyle. Is this part of the backstory? Is the pregnant woman the patient? Is it Sylvia? Does it matter? It all works, with Silberman comparing the unborn to a bear cub over childlike music-box synthesizers. He sings, “All the while I’ll know we’re f----d/ And not getting unf---ed soon.”
The climax comes in “Two.” The doctor brings the narrator into the hallway and “told me something I didn’t know that I wanted to hear:/ That there was nothing that I could do to save you.” The music brings back themes from “Bear,” and like that track, it marries guilt-ridden emotions with uptempo beats.
Through song subtitles, we learn that the deceased is indeed “Sylvia,” and she returns in “Epilogue.” “You’re face is up against mine,” Silberman sings during one of her nightly visits, “And I’m too terrified to speak.”
Rating: W W W W