Monday, June 30, 2014

Familiars: Track-by-Track

Hi. How are you feeling today? Chipper? Perhaps a little over-chipper?

Well, if your good mood needs extinguishing, you'll be pleased to hear that The Antlers have a new album out and that, today, we're going to listen to it. Long-time patrons of The Album Wall may remember that I dubbed Hospice "the most depressing album in my entire collection, if not the whole damn world", and I stand by that hyperbole; such is the stunning misery of the band's 2009 magnum opus that 2011's Burst Apart - which, mind you, contained songs about car accidents and canine euthanasia - seemed oddly uplifting by comparison.

You may spend the rest of your days in the foetal position, but compared to the people who have just listened to Epilogue, you'll look like The Happiest Man in Springfield.

And now, after a three-year break (discounting the Undersea EP, which was released in July 2012), The Antlers are back with Familiars, a set of nine songs with one-word titles like Palace and Parade and Hotel. Will this album be just as bleak and depressing as their previous work? Or will I, against all odds, be able to walk away from today's blog feeling like life is still worth living?

There's only one way to find out. I will now listen to Familiars and blog about each track as it comes; you can pull up Spotify (or, God forbid, put the CD on) and play along at home if you fancy.

1. Palace
The album opens with a very nice piano 'n' brass arrangement that could almost have been torn from a Disney movie. It's a far cry from the harsh, lo-fi sound of Hospice, I'll tell you that. This song seems to be about growing up and losing your inocence: "You were simpler, you were lighter when we thought like little kids...before you were hid inside a you learned to disconnect."

Certainly not a happy sentiment, but there is a glimmer of hope as the song builds: "I swear I'll find your light in the middle" makes it sound like things could end happily after all. Perhaps this won't be as traumatic as Hospice

2. Doppelgänger
Where the first track sounded rich and expansive, this one sounds tense and uncertain. Trumpet notes fade in and out of focus as Silberman sings about "paranoia", "backward whispering", and an "ugly creature" behind the mirror. It's creepy, yes, but it's hardly depressing - compared to Kettering, the second track on Hospice ("I wish I had known, in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you"), this is a frigging hootenanny.

3. Hotel
This one's got a beat, which is encouraging (Doppelgänger dragged on for a bit long without doing very much, I thought). I'm enjoying the generous helpings of brass that are all over this album so far - it's a great sound for The Antlers, so I hope that continues over the next half-dozen tracks.

'But how depressing is it, Joel?' 

Um, it's not too bad. I think it's about losing touch with the past ("In the hotel, I can't remember how the past felt"), being torn between moving forward and staying connected to who you used to be. Again, this sort of thing may sound like a goldmine of misery to you, but it's actually pretty cheerful by Silberman's standards.

4. Intruders
Mm, soulful. This one sounds like something from Nixon by Lambchop - not a comparison that I expected to make in today's blog, but there it is.

I'm not really sure what he's singing about here, I have to say. The doppelgänger is back again ("When my double scales the wall, I'll know exactly where he's landing"), and we learn a little more about the nature of the 'ugly creature' from track two:

"Then when he's captured, with his hands bound,
I beg for answers to all my questions, like,
'What happened?
Why'd you let me let you in when I was younger?
And why'd I need to?'"

Dark stuff, and a clear sign that there's some kind of thread running throughout this album. But, crucially, I'm still not sobbing on the floor with my knees pressed against my chin. Try harder, Silbernman.

5. Director
Okay, the story is beginning to fall into place. Here's an excerpt from this song:

"I can tell that you're far from yourself
When you barter your lust for your health.
And when you claim it's all a play, and you just don't care,
I only stare..."

And, later:

"But you remember which is which when the wrong man wins,
You will hate who you are 'til you overthrow who you've been."

I think I'm far enough in now to start making sweeping statements about Familiars as a whole, so here it goes: this album is about changing into a different person - perhaps through having loads of sex, as that line about lust would suggest - and then struggling to work out who you really are afterwards. The 'doppelgänger' who keeps popping up is the dark spectre of The New You, and you're approaching the point at which you can't tell whether you're him or he's you. This is all reflected in the blurred-together duality of those figures on the album cover, too.

Here they are again, in case you can't be bothered scrolling back up to the top.

It's a theory, anyway. There's less brass in this song, which is disappointing. 

6. Revisited
No clue about this one (although, lyrically, I find it oddly reminiscent of Bandits by Midlake). I'm reading the lyric booklet as I listen - Jarvis Cocker would be appalled - and I've just noticed that some parts are in italics and some aren't. The final verses of this song are italicised, whereas the rest is written normally; are we to assume that these are two different voices, two different characters?

Perhaps. Lyrical content aside, there's a great guitar solo and *two* lovely trumpet solos in this song, and when Silberman sings those italic, he can really sing, can't he?

7. Parade
This almost sounds like a happy song, if you can believe it. I'm going to stop speculating on the album's overarching themes (frankly, I think I've done very well for a first listen), but taken on its own, Parade seems to be a 'you and me against the world' kinda song, with the narrator and some special friend of his going to a secret spot ("an empty parking lot where...the cops have forgot").

He even sings that "this year will be the year we win" - nobody could have expected a positive sentiment like that from an Antlers album!

8. Surrender
I'm happy to report that the excellent brass arrangements are still present and correct on this, the album's penultimate track. Regardless of conceptual stuff, this is easily the band's most musically accomplished album yet, and I'm really looking forward to listening again.

Now then. There are depressing thoughts in this song ("Is life a fatal race for all contenders?"), and I wondered if the following couplet might have been a veiled reference to suicide:

"We'll step inside a world far less demanding
When we allow for something less commanding."

But then I realised that, hey, I'm actually looking for depressing shit! This album is so happy - compared to Hospice and Burst Apart, at least - that I'm having to make up crazy hidden meanings to make it seem like a standard sad Antlers album.

Why am I doing this? Can't I just accept that Silberman et al are allowed to express a range of emotions, not just bleak, impenetrable misery?

9. Refuge
And, hey, it looks like we might even get the happy ending that I forecast back at the start! This sounds like our intrepid hero is finally returning to himself, making peace with the past and future alike:

"Man, you're already home and you don't even know it.
You have a room you can return to, and you'll never outgrow it."

He's home! It's over! It's all good! ...Isn't it?

Well, hm. Here are the last two lines that appear in the booklet:

"It's not our house that we remember,
It's a feeling outside it when everyone's gone but we leave all the lights on anyway."

That doesn't sound like a completely happy ending to me. I think I'll need to read a bit more about Familiars before I really know what's going on in these songs, but I'm pleased to report that my joie de vivre and my will to go on have survived this entire album intact. Unlike Epilogue and Putting the Dog to Sleep, this particular closing track has roundly failed to reduce me to a hopeless, quivering wreck.

In a way, I'm slightly disappointed. I bought this album because I wanted to feel sad, Silberman! Not because I wanted to hear some beautiful, smoky brass lines and a vague story about some sort of body double!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, an alnum that's more depressing than the Holy Bible? I'm gonna have to check it out!