Review Summary: Here we come to a turning of the season
Every once-young band which manages to survive for longer than a few albums eventually has to confront the approach of middle-age. Some try endlessly to maintain their original sound and identity, even if it no longer truly fits them. Others evolve slowly, while a few of their peers attempt to do so more radically. There’s no doubt that Green To Gold, The Antlers’ sixth full-length, shows the band in this (often uncomfortable) position. The results represent a new rendition of The Antlers, but it’s far from completely out of the blue. There are definite undertones here of the style the band explored on their previous effort, 2014’s Familiars (to general acclaim), but the lush, jazzy-tinged sound which that album cultivated has now slid significantly towards the previously untouched territory of warm Americana flavors. The results will inevitably be controversial among the band’s longtime fans, but ultimately The Antlers’ new face is a rousing success, despite its low-key nature (or perhaps because of it).
The summary for this review is the opening line from The Decemberists’ turning point album The King Is Dead for good reason. It’s not just a reference to the endless allusions to seasonal changes all around Green To Gold, from the album name and artwork, to many of the songs’ lyrics, and beyond (for heaven’s sake, there are two tracks called “Solstice” and “Equinox”). Besides all that, there are fairly striking similarities between the two albums. In both cases, a venerable and iconic indie band moved in a direction likely to prove divisive to their fan base, indeed in each case by adopting an Americana-influenced approach (admittedly, The Decemberists’ new style was far more anthemic but simultaneously less atmospheric than The Antlers’). Despite any short-term disillusionment, it’s likely that with the passage of time both works will be well-regarded as a reasonable update to an aging band’s style (as indeed, The King Is Dead already increasingly seems to be). In the case of Green To Gold, the change in sound is perhaps less extreme, but the further retreat towards soothing rather than emotionally gripping songs seems rather significant in the context of the band’s trajectory.
The opening and ending tracks of Green To Gold are instrumentals, although they broadly follow the sonic confines of the musical style The Antlers are exploring here, Americana/folk/country drenched in the rich indie soundscapes that the band explored with Familiars (and indeed, even a bit with the Undersea EP). In between these bookends, Peter Silberman is in fine form, his instantly-recognizable, sensitive vocals soaring over gorgeous musical backdrops, one after another. Second track “Wheels Fall Home”, where his voice makes its first entrance, is an absolute stunner, which then feeds into the following “Solstice”, which is just as beautiful. “It Is What It Is” in the album’s second half mixes the sound up a little with a prominent French Horn fusing with the heavy country-ish influences. While most of the songs are around the four minute range, there are several lengthier tunes, most notably the nearly-eight minute title track late in the listing, which is a masterpiece both lyrically and instrumentally. Taken all together, Green To Gold is a stunningly-pretty collection of songs fused with common threads.
The Antlers have never been a particularly hard-rocking or musically propulsive band, in fact, to suggest so would be almost laughable. Nonetheless, here they’ve stretched their style even more towards a lazy, slowed-down place, the hazy sound of laying in the shade under the edge of the trees on a blazing summer afternoon. In terms of tone, the band’s focus has shifted as well. There are bittersweet moments on this record, but the vibe is far more mellow and indeed, positive, than the same band that gave us Hospice. You could argue that the process has been ongoing for a while now, but nonetheless this is their most upbeat release in a long time, perhaps ever. The prevalent lyrical themes here are some seasonal references, some philosophical thoughts, and some sense of loss and lessons learned, as befits a band whose first record came out fifteen years ago.
Green To Gold will likely be somewhat polarizing to longtime fans of The Antlers’ craft. While the new release strikes out on a new path, the path chosen is primed for criticism that the effort is stale and doesn’t approach the emotional depths which they’re capable of. And it’s true that the band is now much more content to produce mellow, hazy music for its own sake. Nonetheless, the results are revelatory in both their pure beauty and the cohesive nature of the album as a whole. The Antlers have been around the block a few times and the times have changed, but they're still on the top of their game.