The transference of The Antlers’ Hospice – undoubtedly one of the albums of 2009 – to the live setting was always going to be one of the more interesting musical happenings of the year. And while it’s always a pleasure to see a marquee album performed for the first time, Hospice isn’t just a straightforward, great album, requiring a straightforward, great performance.
Hospice is, rather, a concept album; but the operative word here isn’t really “concept”. Like the most worthwhile concept albums, Hospice feels like a true realisation of the album art form as it once was.
There are no discernible singles, there are barely any gaps in between the tracks. The whole thing exists as a collection of moods spliced together, so that the album’s central theme lives and breathes as something singular, yet multi-dimensional.
Although Hospice is clearly influenced by the atmospheric work of Paul Elverum (The Microphones, Mount Eerie) and the maudlin landscaping of Radiohead, it’s Pink Floyd and the studio-based adventurism of The Beatles that are its truest forebears. Like Dark Side Of The Moon and Sgt Pepper’s, listening to Hospice is an experience that shares as much in common with cinema or literature as it does with music.
Appropriately, the album begins and ends with a prologue and epilogue. Its loose and cleverly intertwined narrative – lyrically narrated by the Antlers’ lead singer and main creative, Peter Silberman – guides the listener through mostly desperate tribulations, with occasional glimpses of something more hopeful. The combination of Silberman’s dark, confessional poetry and the Antlers’ masterful grasp of subtle, ambient landscaping and mood-shaping induces the kind of lucid mental-storyboarding and imagery many would only ever associate with their favourite novel… or worst nightmare. In an age of one-track-at-a-time MP3 downloads and patchy albums built around singles, Hospice is both a compelling reminder and a welcome reaffirmation of the importance of the album and the validity of conceptual musical structure.
So where does this leave Hospice as a live entity? Predictably, some of the magic of the album is lost. But happily, this loss isn’t felt that much. It’s something that Silberman and co seem to recognise. The album isn’t played in order and the tracks that are performed are extended versions, taking the audience deeper into the sub-plots of each track rather than the greater context of the album.
Sylvia is a violent and hallucinatory eruption of desperation. An intense, closed-eyed Silberman lurches with each convulsive chorus, as the song despairingly spurts and coughs up its bile. What is lost in subtlety is gained in flat-out emotion. Throughout the set, Silberman is often to be found bent double over his Fender guitar, lolling his head like something non-human; his body a clutch of intensity. It’s pretty clear that Silberman is still in the shadow of past events. The strained look that’s etched on his face speaks both of recent trauma and of someone that has finally found some kind of emotional vent.
Silberman’s partners in crime, Michael Lerner (drums, percussion) and Darby Cicci (synths), expertly support their lead singer, without ever dominating. Yet equally, while this is very much Silberman’s opus, his supporting cast are integral members of the New York-based outfit. Lerner’s chopping rhythms add anger and aggression, while Cicci’s ambient textures set often-claustrophobic emotional boundaries. Some of the audience attempt to dance and bob their heads to the music. Most aren’t able to. It’s not that Hospice is devoid of rhythm. It’s just impossible to do much apart stand in stupor and attempt to absorb it all.
Thankfully, like the album, the live show isn’t all mired in seriousness and does involve the occasional paean of hope. The beautifully melodic chamber-pop of Bear and the hypnotic, sugared twang of Two are among this year’s most joyous moments. And then there’s Wake, which in the context of this profound album and contemporary music in a wider sense, is as close to spiritual and emotional awakening as music is likely to venture. It’s the kind of awakening that can only stem from lengthy and painful introspection and, ultimately, confession. And that’s really the thing with Hospice; its beauty lies in its honesty.