I apologize in advance, for this is plausibly the nth review you will read about the Antlers’ fourth LP (second in their current setup as a trio) where their previous, magnificent album, Hospice, gets an awful lot of space. That can’t be avoided. Hospice, a sprawling and disturbing concept album about cancer among other things, will certainly be career defining for a long time unless the Antlers take a drastic U-turn in their aesthetic sensitivity: its remarkable narrative focus and heartfelt clarity made it a unique piece of work in its time – few influences could be traced musically and even fewer when it came to the disarming and bleak emotional territory it mined. It was a huge drain on the listener as much as it was a cathartic experience, and it must have been the same for the band to record it, times a thousand. The album pointed towards different possible directions in the development of the band’s sound, but certainly one option wasn’t viable – Hospice II.
I won’t bore you with all the metaphysical ruminations on what I ‘expected’ from this follow-up – those are always subjective and hardly ever relevant. Let’s cut to the chase: Burst Apart is, before all value judgement, a less dramatic affair, more eclectic in sound, more conventional in song structure, generally more uptempo but at the same time lacking in veritable peaks. Also, it is not (to the best of my knowledge) a concept album, and Silberman’s approach to lyrics has become more cryptic, with varying degrees of success.
Some of you who heard Hospice (certainly not its most fervent fans) will be relieved to hear that Burst Apart boasts a larger rhythmic variety, which is the feature that’s most readily apparent on listen one. Parentheses is tense and strident, sporting a guitar riff reminiscent of Radiohead circa The Bends; French Exit has an understated funky vibe to it, and it is prime evidence to this record’s decidedly more light-hearted mood. Silberman said he had never been so excited to get his work heard by the public, and that may be trivially true because he’s never had as big an audience as now, but perhaps it’s also because here he is exhibiting a considerably larger palette of sounds.
A common warning when you’re striving for breadth is that you shouldn’t sacrifice depth in the process: sadly, that’s what seems to be happening here. The main problem with Burst Apart is that many songs seem to go nowhere. Rather than penning songs with a feeling of progression and climax, or with inventive structures (of which he’s proved capable), here Silberman seems mostly content with repeating one central idea – granted, often a good one – several times while adding or removing layers of sound, often without adding much to the experience. The songs that I have cited as examples of novelty are even better evidence for the inherent shallowness of this record. They both end roughly in the same way they started, and on top of that it’s not really clear what kind of feeling they are trying to convey – odd, considering how the Antlers’ greatest strength was their ability to empathise with the human condition. This holds true for several other songs on the record: it all sounds (un)remarkably neutral and flat, even when on the surface it seems to aim for emotional heights.
There are a few highlights that save the record, and fatally they are the most reminiscent of, wait for it, Hospice. No Widows – which, with its syncopated beat and half-whispered vocals, wouldn’t sound out of place in Age Of Adz – starts off intimist and eventually reaches an intensity of religious proportions. Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out is far and away the best song on this album. It is Silberman at his most direct and confrontational: he manages to sound simultaneously compassionate and resentful, and he paints an unsettling and despairing picture of a psyche in disarray, wherein his struggle and sense of inadequacy with his loved one branch out into his dreams (presumably where his teeth are falling out).
Lyrically it’s a hit and miss affair. One song in particular works as an example: the closer, Putting The Dog To Sleep. It starts with ‘Prove to me I’m not gonna die alone / Put your arm ‘round my collar bone’ where a possibly sappy line is turned over its head by a tangible detail, reassuringly concrete, perhaps ungracious even, but touchingly so. However a few lines later there’s the clanger: ‘my trust in you/ is a dog with a broken leg’ – a clumsy and unclear metaphor that also redundantly riffs on the title and main subject of the song.
The general impression seems to be that Silberman has problems dealing with subject matter that isn’t excruciatingly heavy or dark: he is not made for middle ground, whether it is musically or lyrically, and yet that’s what he’s treading most of the time in this record. You could say that Burst Apart is like Hospice with greater instrumental variety but both ends of its spectrum clipped out: none of the soft and eerie, none of the loud and shimmering, and eventually everything comes off as incomplete. Sure, there are moments that are bigger and more solemn than others, and atmospheric ballads, but they lack the emotional urgency that goes with it.
If I sound slightly too harsh towards this effort it’s because it’s clear that the Antlers could do so much better, and Silberman's enthusiasm for this record leaves me baffled. However, it is by no means an unadulterated failure, for there are some interesting ideas to be found here, and I’m eagerly waiting for their next record which could still be their masterpiece. But I’m not waiting for Hospice II.