Looking Back At How The Antlers Defined An Era Of Indie On ‘Hospice’

Frenchkiss Records

The Antlers weren’t the last Brooklyn buzz band, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they were. The indie rockers’ breakthrough third album and first proper full-band effort seemed to come from out of nowhere, and for some it kind of did; a month or two after the album was self-released in early 2009, I was working as an associate staff writer for Spin‘s website, a time when music publications’ online and print employees possessed all the collaborative success of the Bubonic plague.

In between watching my editor spend an hour and a half editing news stories about Foo Fighters’ Top Chef appearances and listening to my manager leeringly wax about his predilection for underage teen-culture starlets, I took solace in digging through mail crates of unsolicited promos — effectively tasked with A&R’ing the website’s musical taste, after a series of softball-pitch predictions (“Hey guys, I think this new Grizzly Bear record’s gonna be a big deal!”) were ignored in favor of 24/7, click-gaming Twilight coverage.

Bearing the anthemic burn and murky, shapeshifting nature that marked late-2000s indie rock as a whole, Hospice jumped out immediately on first listen; as a 21-year-old getting his sea legs in the twin hydra of music and media, I didn’t think much more of the album until it was announced that The Antlers had signed to Frenchkiss, the NYC-based indie founded by bassist Syd Butler of metropolitan art-punks Les Savy Fav. (A month after being laid off from the company, I continued to freelance on and off for the magazine for a year, and my review of Hospice was my inaugural print appearance. Thanks, Charles Aaron — I owe you one.) Despite having heard the album already, my interest in revisiting it was immediately re-stoked by the signing, and with good reason.

At the end of the 2000s well into the mid-2010s, Frenchkiss had gained a reputation for signing indie and indie-adjacent acts that bore the mark of quality — solid, enjoyable songs, often indebted to other sounds floating around indie’s increasingly diffuse atmosphere. It would be unfair to refer to Frenchkiss as a farm-team label — for one, singer/songwriter and former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger still releases impeccable and deeply felt solo albums on the imprint to this day. But it’s not inaccurate to state that many of the bands who got their start on the label gained a level of stature that elevated them to a higher echelon of indie, from the major label pop bounce of Passion Pit and The Hold Steady’s beery classic-rock reveries to indie-pop aesthetes The Drums and the moody folk-rock of Local Natives. The Antlers would eventually ascend to similar ranks, and ten years after Hospice‘s release, just listening to the thing is explanation enough as to why.

A proggy, at-times imposing work that nonetheless possessed impactful melodic straightforwardness, Hospice took a few of 2000s-era indie rock’s building blocks — the all-in-it sweep of Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Broken Social Scene’s six-stringed post-rock spin cycle, and the looming presence that Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum once held over indie rock at large — and constructed a tower of pure catharsis. A concept album about finding love in the cancer ward that masked the supposed autobiographical torment of its architect, frontman Peter Silberman chose to remain oblique around the album’s press cycle regarding the “emotionally abusive relationship” that inspired it; but the quixotic generosity of Hospice doesn’t require detailed knowledge of his pain — only that you’re willing to give yourself in to its startlingly raw and emotive sweep.

Hospice practically sounds like Brooklyn, which is less the insult it seems like and more an acknowledgment that its release came at what’s now seen as the tail end of an era that Grizzly Bear-concert-attending Jay-Z referred to as “the indie rock movement.” Many of the bands that came from the borough from, let’s say 2006 to 2010, possessed elements of a similar sound even as they essentially diverged from each other — echo-y, meticulously arranged, and containing the sonic density of a thick slab of chocolate cake. Nestled deep within Hospice‘s own weighty confection are the vocals of singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten, who lends her distinctive voice to nearly half the album, and Silberman would later return the collaborative favor by performing on her 2012 breakthrough Tramp.

As someone closely following indie rock’s general trend trajectory around this time, it’s impossible to state how quickly things changed in regards to “the Brooklyn sound” the year after Hospice‘s release; for a few years, the term represented a variant of DIY-esque ethos applied to experimental-leaning sounds ranging from ramshackle punk and wooly jam-band folk rock to arpeggio-laden hypnagogic pop. The 2010s wore on, and “the Brooklyn sound” — as well as any meaningful path for aspiring bands in the borough (many of whom largely, and some rightly, were assumed to be recent transplants hoping to capitalize off others’ successes) — practically vanished, Hospice existing as one of the last out-of-the-blue success stories from the phenomenon.

When it comes to the increasingly fickle nature of indie throughout this decade, “adapt or die” has proven useful and unfortunate advice for any band looking to maintain a level of popularity. The Antlers did both, kind of; with every record that followed Hospice, Silberman, drummer Michael Lerner, and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci moved further away from the album’s sound towards their own trippy take on stretched-out psych-rock that retained the emotional quotient of their earlier work. It’s not always the case with indie rock bands of their ilk, but they actually got better; their best album, 2014’s Familiars, took on strange off-white shapes with miles of reverb and lush emptiness, slow-handed guitars and mournful trumpets that sounded mirage-like in their capacity to just barely exist.

The band’s second release on big-deal indie, Anti- Records, Familiars marked The Antlers’ highest chart performance to date, bowing at No. 73 on the Billboard 200; it was also effectively their last release to date. Rigorous touring did serious damage on Silberman’s hearing, which resulted in the meditative solo album Impermanence from 2017; later that year, a since-deleted Tweet suggested the band was done for, followed by a quick clarification. Next weekend, Silberman and Lerner (Cicci is no longer with the band) will take the stage in Brooklyn to perform Hospice in its entirety as part of a series of acoustic performances — the first proper Antlers shows in nearly a half-decade.

Anniversary shows are, in this day and age, nothing new — their proliferation is essentially an acknowledgment that there’s always money in revisiting the past, as well as the chance of reintroducing old sounds to newer audiences. But the frozen-in-amber quality of Hospice makes the idea of revisiting it in any context stand apart from your typical milestone. There really hasn’t been a record like it since, especially as the very sonic definition of “indie” has become diffuse enough to encompass techno, hip-hop, and straight-up pop music. Ten years out, we’re able to point to Hospice and say without any specific value judgment, “This is what top-tier indie rock used to sound like,” a distinction that few acts earn in their lifetime — and The Antlers’ continued and fascinating maturation since has only added to their singular, alluring legacy.

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10 years later, hbd ❤️ @theantlers #hospice #fkr20

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