Many of Peter Silberman’s lyrics seem to come as a hushed afterthought – a parenthesis that echoes or…
Many of Peter Silberman’s lyrics seem to come as a hushed afterthought – a parenthesis that echoes or elucidates its predecessor – and so the images with which he furnishes his songs, intertwine with the emotions of his characters. It was a feature he toyed with heavily on The Antler’s first album as a trio, Hospice, in which he told the story of a failing and abusive relationship, through the devastating analogy of a hospice worker who’s fallen in love with a terminally ill patient.
This was part of the very allure of Hospice: it was a story that none of us were ever going to experience for ourselves, yet that hardly seemed to matter at all: he made it feel as if we had. That the story unfolds with such brilliant cohesion plays into its role as a refuge for those that are drawn by the idea of emotional anguish. All this anguish, both of the story and the relationship it represents, is summarised by the wrenching ‘Two’. The song weaves through a relationship that is filled with self-destruction, anxiety, alienation and death. But where this was an image of the damage that the two characters caused one another, The Antlers’ latest record, Familiars, takes all of these emotional toxins and addresses them through the internal world of one person.
But a person created and inspired by Peter Silberman is one wracked with personal demons, inner turmoil and multiple personas. Familiars is both The Antlers’ most intricate and, concomitantly, their least obviously diverse album. The most prominent sonic shift from the luscious Burst Apart to 2012’s Undersea EP was the introduction of brass instruments as a prominent feature of the songs’ landscapes. This feature has deepened with Familiars, and its horns act as a kind of haunting leitmotif that form a crucial aspect of the ways in which its songs twist and contract and distend within themselves. They add to the eeriness of songs like ‘Doppelganger’: a patient, lingering portal into confronting one’s darkest sides, and the dangers of being overwhelmed by them. Silberman’s darkest sides are vestiges from the past, “You will hate who you are/’Til you overthrow who you’ve been” he cries on the equally poignant ‘Director’. He makes us hold together the ideas that our pasts can seem so foreign that we feel that they were lived by an entirely different being; with the knowledge that they’re plaguing our present and there’s nothing we can do to escape them.
But the muted trumpet is as capable of sounding triumphant, as it does on the albums more positive moments. What makes Familiars so immersive is that the melancholy happens on just one level – the album grows in stature the further you delve into it. It’s almost surprising when the realisation strikes that the album is riddled with moments which are – at least sonically – glisteningly warm. That might seem an odd thing for an album that is fixated on death. But these more ebullient sections hint at the true crux of the album. They anticipate the sense of unease that is fostered by the ‘Doppelganger’, and throw you right into ‘Hotel’, which addresses the idea of being in a cleansing space before death – of letting go of past lives as much as possessions – but looks at death to elucidate life, and is oddly life-affirming for it. This is buoyed by the lush layering of earthy guitars and nimble drumming, which are twisted around by exultant trumpets. Familiars is often filled with gloom and a harrowing sense of anxiety, and these moods are reflected by the sparseness of the songs that inhabit them. Yet, even more than this, it is an album about finding solace. And the solace is manifested by the album’s extraordinary string of closing tracks.
This three-part closing segment is the album’s strongest, and is opened by the insouciant ‘Parade’. It gives the mission statement for ending of the album midway through it: “Before our suffering’s suffering, hadn’t we suffered enough?” And the answer, ostensibly, is yes. He hasn’t quite found the solace or happiness that he wanted from meeting his inner darkness head-on, but for the first time, he’s ready for it. ‘Surrender’ has the narrator finally relinquishing the overwhelming power that his past held over him, and on ‘Refuge’, he finds some measure of peace in the idea that “you’re already home when you don’t know where to find it.”
And yet, despite the thematic despair and potential for cathartic self-exploration, this is an album that can be as enjoyable as you want it to be. It can be nothing more than what it seems on the surface – strikingly beautiful. The songs on Familiars feel absorbing and shimmering, and almost so fragile that they could waste away; right until the moment that Silberman takes off with his piercing falsetto and the song rises around him. The amplitude of the songs is driven by Silberman’s voice, which he uses far more markedly than on previous albums. Where he sang in almost unwaveringly high registers on both Hospice and Burst Apart; Familiars finds him using his falsetto sparingly. In fact its first true appearance is at the vocal midpoint of ‘Doppelganger’, where it fittingly accentuates his fear: “And now’s he howling, but I’m muted by the horror.” His voice anchors the listener toward the power of the lyrics.
The Antlers’ albums have all been characterised by the way in which their gorgeous arrangements mean that each aspect echoes another. Familiars is perfectly paced, its surges happen just when its desolation seems overbearing, and it finds solace where there was despair. In all this emotional turmoil, The Antlers manage to find an equilibrium that feels fundamentally human. Throughout Familiars, both his voice and the music swell and compress to perfectly map out the lyrics, in a way that is embodied by the album’s cover – bifurcated and singular, morbid and united, consumed by suffering, but ultimately at peace.