Monday, February 20, 2017

The Antlers: Why Has Peter Silberman Gone Solo?

Later this week, Antlers frontman Peter Silberman will be releasing his debut solo album Impermanence. I always find it interesting when a band's chief songwriting force goes solo (what's the point, I often wonder, when you already have creative control?), and it's particularly intriguing in this case because The Antlers themselves started life as a Peter Silberman solo project. It was only eight or nine years ago that they assumed the form of a proper band with an established core lineup: drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci didn't get involved until Silberman already had a couple of albums in the bag, and even the most recent Antlers record - 2014's superb Familiars - still credited Peter Silberman as the sole writer for every track.

So why, given that Silberman's arse is still planted firmly in the driver's seat of the Antlermobile, has he now decided to release an album under his own name? Impermanence has a far sparser sound than any recent Antlers release - large swathes of the record feature no sound other than Silberman's guitar and that wonderful, ethereal voice of his - so perhaps he simply felt that, with The Antlers now officially a three-person operation and not just his own stage name, it wouldn't be right to release such an individualistic work under that banner. Just as Conor Oberst doesn't tend to put the Bright Eyes name on any recording in which Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott weren't involved, it's likely that Silberman now reserves the Antlers brand for music featuring contributions from Cicci and Lerner.

But there may be another answer to the question as well. The last three Antlers albums - that is, the three albums recorded since The Antlers became a band rather than just a solo project - form a sort of loose trilogy, and I wonder if Silberman has chosen to release Impermanence under his own name to make it clear that it's not part of the same series.

From left to right: Hospice (2009), Burst Apart (2011), Familiars (2014)

Hospice, The Antlers' breakthrough album and the first one recorded with something resembling a full band, introduces us to Silberman's narrator and his terminally-ill girlfriend Sylvia, then proceeds to tell us the (exceptionally depressing) story of their relationship's final weeks. Sylvia, dying of cancer, wants - perhaps even expects - the narrator to find a means of rescuing her from her fate, and this expectation weighs so heavily on him that it destroys their relationship and leaves him feeling guilty and helpless. The guilt and the emotional abuse intensify until Sylvia finally succumbs to her disease and the narrator finds himself alone. He continues to have nightmares about Sylvia (sleeping together in the morgue, being buried alive with her), but penultimate track Wake makes it clear that the real challenge for him now will not be getting over the loss of his girlfriend but regaining his capacity for "letting people in".

This process begins with Burst Apart. This album has a smoother sonic landscape than its occasionally harsh-sounding predecessor: Hospice's crinkly, lo-fi edges and sudden bursts of noise have been airbrushed out and replaced with deep pools of reverb and a sort of soft-focus filter. Silberman's stunning voice remains wracked with anguish, though, and it sells this album's emotional beats spectacularly well - and from the 'I will never love again' resolve of I Don't Want Love to the twitchy self-erasure of No Widows to the sweat-soaked terror of Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out, there are enough emotional beats here to box your ears raw by the end.

There is a resolution, though. The last two tracks, Corsicana and Putting the Dog to Sleep, find our narrator closing windows, tying up loose ends, and accepting (seemingly with the help of a new lover) that trusting someone is a leap of faith: there are no guarantees and no QEDs, but that's not a reason to keep your guard up at all times and treat everyone like an enemy.

And so on to Familiars, which is an album about closure, finding a comfortable place to file away the past and doing some hard thinking about who you are now. The sound this time around is rich and soulful, characterised by heavenly trumpets and gorgeous guitar parts. At times, Familiars sounds like it's taking place in the ruins of the other two albums: the darkened roads from No Widows are covered in snow, impassable, while the home that our protagonist once shared with Sylvia has been looted, gutted, stripped bare.

I mentioned the gorgeous guitar parts, and this song culminates in one of the best guitar solos I've ever heard.

Familiars ends with a song called Refuge, in which the protagonist seems to finally realise where he belongs ("you're already home and you don't even know it"). With that, the trilogy is complete and the story arc has nowhere else to go - so Peter Silberman has to find a new story to tell.

Impermanence will be out this Friday. It doesn't sound *entirely* unlike the last few Antlers albums, but there's far more space around each sound now, and it inhabits a universe far closer to our own. When I listen to Burst Apart, I picture Silberman dressed like a film noir detective, pacing through rainy streets in the middle of the night and gazing at the streetlights reflected in the puddles; when I hear Familiars, I picture a fantastical frozen dystopia - a silent city lined with empty houses and sheltered beneath a sky full of impossible colours. Impermanence sounds like the real world; New York in particular is the sound of a real person's real experiences of a real city.

More thoughts on Impermanence later this week.

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