opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
Since the release of their watershed album Hospice, the Antlers have gradually distanced themselves from emotionally crushing storytelling in favour of melodramatic pop. You would think it was almost out of necessity; Hospice is an extraordinarily draining record to listen to, and I can only imagine what it was like recording it. Dwelling on memories as harrowing as the ones that were aired out on their first album as a full band is a tough way to make a living. After pinning themselves onto the map, the Antlers’ subsequent releases, LP Burst Apart and EP Undersea, refined this new ideal, scrubbing the grit out of their sound and cultivating prettiness. Familiars, the fifth album frontman Peter Silberman has released under the Antlers name, is the band’s most effortlessly graceful release yet.
It is also their dreariest, delivering that immersive quality that the Antlers have used to propel themselves to the brink of indie rock royalty, but notably lacking in pungency. Familiars builds itself around Valtari levels of ethereality, diffuse and polished down to a beautiful nothing. All of its nine songs are five minutes or longer, and center around finger-plucked slide guitar, grazed piano keys, brushstroke drums and horns – namely trumpets.
If this configuration rings a bell, it should. Sonically, Familiars takes many of its cues from Undersea, diluting the jazzy template that worked dazzlingly as an EP across an entrancing (some might say drowsy) 53-minute runtime. This is probably the first time that unity and adhesion has dampened the effect of an Antlers album. You’ll find yourself waiting for Silberman to slip out of his subdued, default tone and belt it a little more often, or for Michael Lerner’s nascent drum work to bloom into something other than a 4/4 hi-hat/snare/kick combo. Utilityman Darby Cicci and is the most interesting player here, and his decision to make the brass a bigger part of the album is an experiment that hits more often than it misses.
When they break that mold, as on “Hotel” or “Parade” – possibly the two most accomplished, full-bodied tracks on the album – it teases what could have been had the band elected to remain as daring musically as they are lyrically. Other tracks, like the monochrome “Director”, a song that’s uncharacteristically clunky lyrically, are simple tire spinning. The overtly relaxed sonics are likely a side effect of the Antlers quite transparent attempts to escape from the shadow of Hospice. Post-rock textures are done away with almost entirely, so when Silberman asserts that “We need to make our history less commanding” on “Surrender”, it’s all too clear what he’s talking about.
It is really a shame that the musical framework on Familiars does so little to elevate on what is another rich narrative from Silberman. He uses his reportedly exhausted falsetto less often here, and the downshift lends a weariness and gravamen to his words. Each track is told through the eyes of what appears to be the same person, but from a different life stage or in a different headspace. They share certain personality traits, but the differences are as stark as the parallels.
This constant juxtaposition of the recognizable and the unrecognizable permeates the entirety of the record. And though each of these voices is unique, they are all expressive. It starts with the lovely “Palace”, which features Silberman as his most effeminate as he laments the ripple effects of a toxic relationship. From there, these various points of view converse, solicit advice, spar with and learn from each other, as if they were a nuclear unit. At the record’s end, it almost feels like a short story anthology, bookended by out-of-body experience depicted on “Refuge”.
The common thread with all of these “familiars” is the upheaval of the idea of maintaining a fixed perspective on what someone or something is or was. This divide between past and present crops up on nearly every track, lending a fine thematic balance to the album. Even the song titles are microcosmically tied to the album’s broader motifs. What’s most compelling is the notion that you can be much better acquainted with your own idea of someone than you are with the real version of them. It all comes satisfyingly full circle, but Familiars mostly washes over you when it should be lunging for your heart. B