Since the Brooklyn trio’s emergence in 2009, the Antlers have developed a reputation for the conceptual. Their breakthrough album Hospice, which centered on a patient with terminal cancer, reflected at length on the nature of disease and mortality, while 2011 follow-up Burst Apart hinged on sparse imagery of decaying relationships. Even when the band crossed into the realm of weep-rock, they remained rooted in a conceptual dreamworld. Now, the Antlers have released Undersea, a four-song EP that they claim imitates “the serenity of drifting off to sleep or sinking to the bottom of the ocean.”
But Undersea does more than just imitate. Vibrant and evocative, this EP plunges the Antlers deep into submarine territory, and the trio’s gorgeous vision is often scored with mythical undertones. Like a collection of ancient Atlantis folksongs, Undersea carries an undeniable sense of mythos. Yet despite all its grandiosity, this EP remains rooted in a self-reflective present. Avoiding both nostalgia and urgency, the Antlers languish in an underwater reality, turning inward for four songs of brooding self-examination.
“Drift Drive,” the opening track, immerses listeners in a glistening, slow-moving lullaby. Like a long-lost sea creature, it sinks deep into the ocean and inches slowly across a darkened seabed. Yet beneath the submerged dreaminess lies an electric current, a pulse that allows the Antlers to completely avoid stagnation. Undersea then dives into “Endless Ladder,” nine minutes of phosphorescent bliss. Shimmery and lysergic, “Endless Ladder” makes up over a third of the EP’s running time. It flies by.
“Crest” is the shortest track on Undersea, and it’s a somber plea for intimacy. But, unlike some Antlers tracks of old, “Crest” stays clear of being maudlin. It gushes with synth noise and frontman Peter Silberman’s swelling emotions. “Bathe underwater with me/Swim til you’re half asleep,” he sings. Undersea concludes with the ambient trip-hop of “Zelda,” a meditation on separation.
Silberman has always been one for emotional — if sometimes sentimental — music, and Undersea is no exception. But the theme of water and the overarching feeling of submersion distances the heartache a bit, and the mopey self-pity seems just a bit further away. Rather than swimming in Silberman’s tank of watery despair, we’re watching from the other side of the glass.
Great EPs can be hard to come by. Too often, artists combine mediocre tracks that didn’t make the cut for the last record with demo versions of fan favorites. Undersea happily defies that trend. Deliberate and coherent, the 22-minute release soaks in a flood of vivid, self-contained bliss. Fans of the pained sentimentality on Hospice may find themselves disappointed, but Undersea’s drenched distance reveals a maturity that the Antlers have never before displayed. [B+]