"I'm disassembling...piece by piece..."
Impermanence opens with a crisis. The creative process that led Peter Silberman to write and record this album was triggered a few years ago by an injury that left the Antlers frontman temporarily deaf in one ear and agonisingly sensitive to sounds that he scarcely even noticed before. This devastating setback - and I'm sure that having your hearing wrecked is horrible even when you don't make music for a living - drove home to Silberman the fact that everything is subject to change, and that everything ends eventually. As he himself puts it, Impermanence is the result of being forced to "consider the finite".
'Impermamence' is more than just this album's title - it's also the overarching theme. Transience, temporariness, the fleeting nature of all things. Whether it's your hearing or your life or the objects and people you surround yourself with, everything is impermanent - nothing in this world lasts forever. New York, a song named for what Silberman describes as "a relentlessly impermanent place", is effectively just a list of sounds: "blaring brakes...honking horns...hissing buses...shrieking trains". You presumably get used to all of these noises when you live in NYC, and eventually they fade into the background, but Silberman's ruined hearing stripped away that muffling familiarity and left him feeling like a newcomer to the city once again. His aural callus disappeared, and New York was suddenly entirely unrecognisable, assaulting him from all sides with agitated, angry noise.
After his accident, Silberman ended up fleeing New York City in order to escape that non-stop noise and, in his own words, "find rest and quiet" in "a secluded setting in upstate New York". This is where his healing process began , and judging by the record it spawned, that process focused heavily on trying to internalise the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and accept that the material world is always changing and moving towards an end. This seemingly led him to other tenets of Buddhism, Hindusim and Jainism, as reflected in some of the song titles here: Ahisma means nonviolence (indeed, the chorus of that track is simply "no violence, no violence, no violence today"), and Maya refers to the idea of something that is constantly changing and thus does not exist in a permanent, eternal, spiritual sense.
This album as a whole feels markedly more sparse than anything The Antlers have ever released, with lots of space between the sounds and each song punctuated by moments of silence. Silberman's heightened sensitivity to noise may well have meant that this ultra-gentle approach was the only workable option, but even it was borne of necessity rather than artistry, the results are rather spellbinding. It forces the listener to hear the music through Silberman's damaged, oversensitive ears: every little sound stands out in a way that's simply not possible when half a dozen different instruments are competing with one another. The sparse, delicate sound complements the impermanence theme rather neatly, too - the notes themselves are so fragile that they sound like they might disappear into nothingness at any given moment.
Impermanence closes with a brief, uncertain-sounding instrumental track of the same name, and it's here that Peter Silberman really drives home his message that everything disappears eventually. We're escorted through most of this album by Silberman's gorgeous voice - the voice we're familiar with from Hospice and Burst Apart and Familiars. But right at the very end, that familiar element is pulled out from underneath us like a rug, and by refraining from singing for the duration of the title track, Silberman demonstrates that even he - the one constant at the centre of Impermanence's ever-shifting soundscape - can't stick around forever. His silence during that last track speaks volumes, because it suggests that he has truly come to terms with the lesson he's been trying to teach us this whole time.
Impermanence is out today on Transgressive Records and can be streamed or purchased here.