Ten Years of Hospice
By Alexander Kloss
When I found out about the Antlers’ latest tour shortly after their January announcement, it was already too late: all the tickets to the only Chicago show were sold out. It felt like a slap in the face. I’ve listened to their groundbreaking album Hospice, easily one of my all-time favorites, religiously in the last couple of years, and now that they come to my city to perform said album, I’m snubbed for a ticket. Thankfully, life sometimes works in mysterious ways, and a press pass and an extra Chicago show later I’m in Thalia Hall with my camera.
Hospice is what one might describe as Pitchfork-core: the type of bleak and impactful indie rock that you would otherwise find in Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire. It feels like a child who’s gathering its belongings before boarding a moving truck to a strange new place: picked up, but never quite brought back home again - at least not until the time’s right.
While not completely unplugged, the live set-up was stripped as bare as possible: contained rather than explosive, subtle rather than distorted. After fellow Brooklynite Tim Mislock finished his spine-chilling reverb set, he joined the two remaining band members Peter Silberman (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Michael Lerner (drums) on stage.
While the lines outline the two protagonists’ first encounter, the greatest debt of the evening was of course the one that the audience owed to the Antlers themselves for creating what can be considered as one of the most heart-wrenching albums ever made.
“Because you'd been abused by the bone that refused you
And you hired me to make up for that”,
Silberman goes on, introducing the album’s plot, which is centered on a hospice caretaker and his bone-cancer afflicted patient, the two of which commence a romantic relationship early on in the narrative. As their newfound love spirals into inevitable catastrophe given the circumstances, so do the audience’s emotions.
Hearing an album which in part lives off its rich instrumentals reduced to its essentials turns it even more intimate than it already is. From Silberman’s emphatic enunciation that “All the while I know we’re fucked and we’re not getting un-fucked soon” in “Bear” to his dreamy recital of “Two”, only accompanied by Lerner’s brush drumming, and finally to Mislock’s almost optimistic-sounding outro on “Epilogue”, the sincerity of the artists pulsates with every beat and every note on the album.
It is difficult to put into words the unique sonorous journey on which the three take us – a story which we know will make us feel miserable for a while, but which is so beautiful and unforgettable precisely because it has no happy ending.
Instead, what we’re being served is pure catharsis. If concept albums were stage dramas, Hospice would be the Oedipus Rex among them, the hubris of its protagonist being his misguided belief that he can prevent the inevitable and impeding. The punishment he is being served is cruel, but it’s an excellent reminder that things don’t always work out for the better. For Silberman, Hospice was a symbolic way to move on from his own past, and I’m sure that the album has helped many listeners to go forward in their pursuits in a similar way.
After salvaging themselves from the emotional shipwreck that they’ve just caused, the trio allowed for a short break before returning with a seven-song encore. They choose to play “Parade” from their most-recent album Familiars (2014). Incredibly poignant and wonderfully melancholic, it tells the story of a young couple that keeps on going on in spite of their shared adversities.
Clearly, dysfunctional relationships are a common thread in Silberman’s work. Rather than spanning a large range of topics, his lyrical canon is much more concentrated, but, perhaps for that exact reason, also all the more beautifully crafted.
In the same vein, the set ends on “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, a song about the pain and uncertainty of a dying relationship.
Found on their 2011 follow-up album Burst Apart, the nod to Hospice is more than just slight. It was perhaps the most poignant reminder of the night to cherish what we have while we have it. Taking the “L” back home, I couldn’t help but feel slightly shattered upon realizing the colossal emotional burden that just weighed down on me. But rather than being broken, feeling that weight was also healing in many ways.
Healing, because it reminded me that we might not be able to win every uphill battle, but if you really care about it, it’s probably worth putting up a good fight. But much more than trying to keep on biting and clawing until the end, it tells of the importance of loosening one’s grip when all you’re left holding on to is a molten ice cream cone. Most of all however, it’s a reminder that, no matter how many times we make the same stupid mistakes, if we give ourselves the chance, this time around we might just break the cycle.
The Antlers sing about failing, time and time again, but ultimately it’s about coming out on top eventually. “To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail”, a fellow Brooklyn native famously remarked, and it is in this spirit that the Antlers’ musical catalogue should be read. Maybe it is foolish to keep telling it to ourselves, but if we won’t believe in that age-old mantra, then no one will – so why not make this year the year we will win?