By Michael Lello
Compared to “Hospice,” their beautiful 2009 downer, the experience of listening to The Antlers’ new album “Burst Apart” is quite different. While both albums demand repeat listens, the deeper you found yourself in “Hospice” — inspired by a loved one’s battle with cancer and the narrator’s corresponding resentment and guilt — the more detached from the world you felt, the more you wanted to hear it by yourself. “Burst Apart,” by comparison, is nearly a party record; after hearing it, you’ll want to listen again, but with a friend. It’s also true that both albums are brilliant, and a major strand in “Burst Apart’s” DNA is that it shows growth and expansion since “Hospice.”
The new feelings are as much a product of the sounds as the lyrical sentiments. There is a sense of movement in these 10 shimmering tracks performed by Peter Silberman, Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci; in “Hospice,” the songs were unmistakably in the moment, heavy-hearted with no vision of the future.
“Burst Apart” opens with the breezy soulfulness of “I Don’t Want Love” and the erudite “French Exit,” reminiscent of the icy funk of, say, Roxy Music. In “Parentheses,” Silberman uses his Antony-like falsetto for the first time — he brings it back occasionally throughout the album — over jagged Radiohead-esque guitars and beats.
The landscape established, The Antlers continue with “No Windows,” a melodic tune and “Burst Apart’s” early moment of triumph. The introduction sounds more like a coda or fadeout, dropping you into the thick of it. Electronic beats and synthesizers play a key role in developing the sonic atmosphere, as they do throughout all of these songs, but there’s a human heart beating beneath. Silberman sings of returning to a home with no windows, no clothes to fold, a life where there’s no looming punishment because there’s no one left to judge you — or care. “Rolled Together” follows, essentially some Silberman wailing then repeated lyrics, an easy to overlook but important mood piece for “Burst Apart’s” overall impact.
“Burst Apart” as a whole can be taken as a dream, so it’s appropriate to have a song called “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Apart,” which references one of the more common yet haunting dream plots humans share. Perfectly paired drums and trilling synths blanket Silberman’s crystalline voice, electric guitars and a gentle underpinning of acoustic guitars. This is a band that excels in mid-tempo, and that’s the case here, with a bustling conclusion that stops on a dime.
“Hounds” takes a simple guitar riff and prominent drums and places them in front of Silberman’s voice, creating an effect akin to Wye Oak. Silberman alternates between his usual voice and a falsetto; an inhuman voice, that of a plaintive trumpet, gets equal play and provides a sympathetic response to Silberman.
There’s a sense of waking up in “Coriscana,” Silberman lamenting, “We should’ve shut that window we both left open now.” The snippet is representative of Silberman’s gift as a lyricist: he cuts to the core without giving too much away. His delivery, too, is transcendent. From another singer, a line like “We should hold our breath with mouths together now” might be nothing more than overheated emo romanticism.
The closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep” is the closest thing, musically and emotionally, that we have to “Hospice.” Silberman starts, “Prove to me I’m not going to die alone/ Put your arm around my collarbone, open the door/ Don’t lie to me if you’re putting the dog to sleep.” These are universal fears and dreads; sometimes worse than something bad happening is having it kept secret from you.
When all’s said and done, maybe “Hospice” and “Burst Apart” are more alike than it would appear at first blush. If “Hospice” used death as its backdrop, you could argue “Burst Apart” employs sleep as a metaphor for death, and dreams as a metaphor for the afterlife. These are hazy points, all up for interpretation, and like much great art, there are no wrong answers. The Antlers, like The National, for whom they’ve opened, are more about presenting scenes and questions than providing solutions, and the music they pair with their words is appropriately evocative and enthralling.
Comparing “Burst Apart” to The Antlers’ previous work puts “Burst Apart” in good stead, but if you compare the album beyond that, the album is just as impressive. In fact, nearly halfway through 2011, it is a rightful candidate for the album of the year.