What’s the right response to these times we’re living in? I frequently feel like throwing things myself. Not at people or buildings or anything like that, more just throwing things, heavy things, around my room, to make loud noises. Things that will break and make a lot of noise. There’s no one you can call to have your say. No “agency” is waiting out there for your angry text or your angry email to pinpoint what’s really wrong. No one is waiting to fix what’s broken. So what’s an artist going to do about this shit? Musicians who release introspective, and even dark records are often blamed for being depressing, or sentimental, or just “sad sacks” who love to use depression as their writing prompts. You can find a fair bit of that kind of criticism about The Antlers, especially about their record, “Hospice” (2009), but it’s not limited to that one critically acclaimed concept record. You see it for almost every record they’ve released.
But stopping when you get to “sad sack” totally misses the point. The thing that’s fascinated me about The Antlers since “Hospice” is Peter Silberman’s sensitivity to lyric and song structure, finding clever ways to pair his introspective words (even narrative storytelling) with melody, his almost second sense in finding the best way to fuse his musical mood with his tight lyrics, he creates a higher state of emotional message. Yes, frequently the messages are sad, but that seems a completely reasonable emotional response to where we’re living these days. If you’re not in complete denial, you probably noticed things aren’t going well these days, anywhere in the world. The Antlers noticed. Much has been written about “Hospice,” for example, about the heavy concept of a record about terminal illness, and the many mysteries surrounding the exact meanings of each song. But too much time spent trying to get to the bottom of a songwriter’s exact meaning (there’s a big difference between inspiration and composition, event and metaphor) often misses the point of the song. For example, “Kettering,” the second track on “Hospice,” is for me a study in intimacy. The song’s structure forces the listener in close to the music, and the sadness of the lyrics give it location, but it’s all about the intimacy between two people. This is songwriting as intimate experience. How many people get in that close to the things they fear? To pain? The vocal is almost hidden, more like thoughts than spoken words. This is the best part of The Antlers style: the intimate facing off with things we don’t really want to deal with (if we can get out of it).
Now, The Antlers have released a new EP, “Undersea,” their first since the luminous “Burst Apart” LP, and its companion, “Together,” a collection of alternate versions of songs from “Burst Apart,” both released in 2011. These four songs continue the band’s exploration of emotional landscapes, this time life underwater, metaphorically speaking. It’s tempting to label this suite of songs as a kind of lullaby, but if it is it would a scary lullaby. Nothing is quite easy or safe in The Antlers’s landscape, on land or at sea. The sea isn’t an easy place. Some of the band’s artwork for this project shows alien looking sea creatures floating in blue-green worlds, even a shark in one piece. “Endless Ladder,” my favorite track, explores a sense of dissolving, confusion, and distraction, even as one tries to climb ever upward, trying to get somewhere, but where? To get out of the water? Or just to get out of whatever is dissolving us. In the sea, you’re alone, even if you’re surrounded by diving companions. It’s you against the tide, the animals, the hunters, the isolation, and the fading light from above. It’s even a struggle between you and yourself, your fears and your insecurities. It’s a foreign world, unless you’re a sea creature. That’s why I love this song, because I’m not sure who is trying to escape, from what, and why. It feels like a kind of surrender, but it isn’t our world, the sea. The best we can be are well-mannered visitors.
This group of songs works well as an EP, creates a complete world of feeling and image, but like all EPs once I get involved with the “world” the band shows me, I want more. Four songs just leaves me wanting more. The Antlers have a number of EPs in their catalog, and they use the medium well. And perhaps it’s not fair to want another “Burst Apart” opus just yet. Big records can be habit forming for fans. The Antlers, as a band, have been extraordinarily successful in releasing big records that reach out a long way, records that want playing over and over. It’s like finding a novelist you love and wishing they would keep releasing those 500-page powerhouse novels, one a year for the rest of their lives, just because we love them. That’s an impossible thing to do, even with prolific artists like Peter Silberman. But the heart wants it wants. And the heart of a fan is a demanding muscle. I think artists should also be allowed a little break to jump into a new metaphor from time to time, to swim around in it, explore it, and change things up for an EP or two. “Undersea” is a troubled day at the beach, but it’s a day trip on a summer afternoon. For now, we’ll pack up and go home, but we’re secretly wanting more, and doing our best to wait patiently for the next big moment to come, the next big dream, the next big escape.