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Hospice at 10: The Antlers’ Peter Silberman on how an album about death is now healing his voice

<i>Hospice</i> at 10: The Antlers’ Peter Silberman on how an album about death is now healing his voice
Image: Libby McGuire
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It wasn’t nostalgia that brought Peter Silberman back to Hospice, but necessity. Sometime after the release of his 2017 solo album, Impermanence, the Antlers mastermind suffered a vocal cord lesion, one he admits was brought on by years of “ripping it to shreds.” After he underwent surgery, his vocal therapist gave him some homework: to sing the songs he knows best.

“They told me to sing songs I was super familiar with so I could catch myself using bad technique, change some of my singing habits, and prevent further injury,” he explains. “Those Hospice songs are the ones I know best.”

The Antlers
The Antlers
Photo: Hana Tajima

They’re also turning 10 years old this year, and the voices urging him to take the album on an anniversary tour have finally begun to resonate. Ideas for a reissue and a revisitation had lingered for years, as the band’s breakthrough LP—a narrative album that set the story of a hospice worker and a patient stricken with terminal bone cancer against ambient and anthemic soundscapes—endures as a tectonic staple of turn-of-the-’10s indie. Silberman was hesitant at first, but taking these tracks on the road turned into an opportunity for rehabilitation. He couldn’t belt them like he used to, but he could reinterpret them as he’d been doing in his bedroom over the past year. Quieter. Dreamier, perhaps, with the album’s cathartic bursts turned inward.

Over the next few months, Silberman and Antlers drummer Michael Lerner will play a handful of acoustic shows, ones that will present a stripped-down Hospice in its entirety. That these shows will double as a healing process for the singer is fitting in light of the waiting rooms and hospital beds that pervade the record’s white-walled lyrics. But Hospice, as its title suggests, isn’t about healing so much as it is death.

It’s heard in “Kettering,” in which Hospice’s protagonist first meets his patient, the “hurricane thundercloud” and her “singing morphine alarms.” He ends the haunted track by declaring that he “didn’t believe them when they told me that there was no saving you,” a naïvety to which he’s forced to return time and again. The storm clouds sweep in early and never quite dissipate, with subsequent tracks touching on Sylvia Plath’s suicide, a knee-jerk abortion, and “hundreds of thousands of hospital beds.” Meanwhile, droning synths and Silberman’s voice routinely sink into the penetrating beep of a flatlining electrocardiogram.

Still, for all its doom, death isn’t what makes this story tragic; rather, it’s the delusion that one can overcome it. Hospice is almost frustratingly circular, with Silberman recycling and retooling melodies and vocal arrangements to evoke the redundancy of survival, the ways in which behaviors are born, broken, and routinely resurrected in forms more ragged and unsustainable. It’s human nature to try to preserve that which is dying, but to persist at the perch of death is to also kill everything that surrounds it. “Some patients can’t be saved,” Silberman sings on the album’s penultimate track. “But that burden’s not on you.” You can learn that lesson, but as the epilogue makes clear, the memories of those you believe you’ve failed will never stop trying to drag you into their grave.

It’s a universal narrative, but Silberman’s telling pops with specificity. Details about playing “charades up in the Chelsea” and the ominousness of “87 pounds” spoke to the singer, who says Hospice is autobiographical “to an extent.” Although Silberman refused to go into details, he said it told “the story of a psychologically abusive relationship, some of which took place in a children’s cancer ward.” By offering just that much, he unwittingly invited his fanbase to place his face on the album’s central caregiver.

“I do remember feeling back then that this isn’t exactly mine anymore,” Silberman says. “Once people started developing their own relationship with the material, I started realizing I couldn’t keep a firm grip on it the way that I maybe would have liked to. Actually, I don’t know if I would like to do that because I think by the time I was done with the record, I felt pretty done with it. I was ready to let go of it.”

It wasn’t hard for him to, as he says, “rebel against” the album in the years following its release. “I wanted to distance myself from it because I was starting to feel like it defined me narrowly at a time where I wanted to grow,” he says. “And I hadn’t yet decided for myself who I was, and I didn’t like the idea of anybody else telling me who I was or what I did.”

There was pressure in the wake of Hospice’s success to write another lyric-heavy concept album, one he says he still feels. “I didn’t have another story like that to share, or at least a story of that depth to share,” he says.

Unlike Hospice, which was written almost solely by Silberman over the course of a year and a half, follow-ups Burst Apart and Undersea were developed with Lerner and one-time bandmate Darby Cicci. By the time 2014’s bright, dewy Familiars, the band’s last LP, was released, Silberman says he was again ready for a unifying concept, but sought to “express a complicated idea without needing more words to do that.” Of Impermanence, he says he felt confident in “saying a lot more with less.” He says there’s a track on the latter album that, despite being integral to its central idea, “just wasn’t a good song.” So he cut it, saying that it had “been a magnet for all the weaker ideas of the record and by taking it out I had kind of cleansed the whole thing.”

Expect Silberman’s evolution to continue on the Antlers’ next album, which he confirms is currently in its “early stages” with Lerner, noting that Cicci’s recent departure will impact its direction. “I think the next record will sound different, and that’ll be the product of a lot of things: a different makeup of the band, but also a product of time and growth for us personally.”

“I’m approaching songwriting and production differently than I used to,” he says, “And the music I’m listening to is different than it used to be. It fills a different role in my life than it did five, 10 years ago.”

How so? “The way I used to listen to music was to listen very intensely for the story that was coming out of it. I’d follow the lyrics very closely,” he says. “I just don’t like doing that as much right now. I think music is not exactly serving a wallpaper effect in my life, but it is kind of mood and setting for the activities that I’m undertaking. It’s not lyrically intricate. It doesn’t require a map. It doesn’t require reading along to know what’s being said to get the gist of it.”

Silberman could very well be referencing Hospice in those last few sentences, which makes it all the more fascinating to see how he will translate the songs live now. He promises to “hit the different landmarks of the record.” What one shouldn’t expect are straightforward renditions, and not just because they’re being performed acoustically. A decade later, the intensity of the events that inspired Hospice, the likes of which Silberman was just a few years removed from upon its release, no longer roil in him as they once did.

His voice likely couldn’t handle it if they did. There’s an anxious hysteria to the album, a raw, rippling rage that simmers even in the album’s staticky moments of ambience. To absorb the lyrics is to hear the patient’s howls, to witness the caregiver’s curdling terror at her “screaming, expiring,” as on “Atrophy,” while being “her only witness.” Later, on “Thirteen,” Sharon Van Etten, sounding as if she’s at the bottom of a well, cries, “Couldn’t you have kept all this from happening?” Lightbulbs shatter, shovels sift dirt, and, in the final moments, a ghost screams, curses, hurts, smiles, cries, and apologizes.

“None of it is a time that I wish I could go back to,” Silberman says. “That goes for the time that inspired the record, the time making it, and the time after. And there’s a lot of good in there, but I don’t think I’d ever want to return to that that stage in my life. It’s nice to be removed from it now, a little older, having more self-assurance. And to be healthier, both in my mind and otherwise.”

The songs are still his story, but, more so, they’re his songs, ones he’s tailoring to his current strengths as both a singer and a writer. He knows that he doesn’t need to scream into the rafters for his audience to connect to them as they always have. “Hospice is mine and it’s not mine,” he says. “My relationship to it is very different than the relationship of somebody who is a fan of the record or who has spent a lot of time with it and isn’t me. Both can exist and both are very different.”

The storm that inspired Hospice remains, be it in the lyrics or in the connection to it so many still feel, but great albums tend to become greater by changing over time. What is loud can be soft. What made us cry can make us smile. And what once hurt can now heal. In this case, quite literally.