A slow descent into a blasted-out void as intimate as it is alienated, the introductory track of the Antlers' self-released Hospice drops the listener into a sonic space somewhere near This Mortal Coil's 1984 It'll End in Tears (4AD). The reference point is a rich one. Jeff Buckley was given to covering It'll End in Tears' opening track, the Alex Chilton composition "Kangaroo," and when Antlers' singer-songwriter Peter Silberman's voice enters the scene on Hospice's next song, "Kettering," his fallen choir-boy high tenor is a polite echo of the drowned romantic Buckley, whose equally fatalistic father Tim wrote another one of It'll End in Tears' signature tracks. More blatantly, Hospice is an album all about this mortal coil, a recording that as the title makes clear lives near or within a threshold into death, alternately charting out or clawing at broken bonds.
Not exactly a light listening experience, whicb might be why Hospice is being greeted as everything from a work of genius (an NPR critic not only deemed it the best album so far this year, but better than anything from 2008) to an overrated angst fest (in the ever-reactive blogosphere, crankier reviewers have envisioned it as backdrop music for Scrubs and deemed it the musical form of Cymbalta). Another aspect of Hospice that triggers strong reactions is its back story, a tale of the now 23-year-old Silberman's extended creative isolation that's an urban version of the rural tortured artistry yarn attached to Bon Iver's acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjauwar, 2008).
To escape the growing chatter, it helps to engage directly with the music, itself far from devoid of cultural signposts. In crafting a 10-song cycle about life and love and death, Silberman draws heavily from the real-life stories and legends of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; one gets the impression that he uses them as a loose-fitting cover for the skeletal remains of his own recent brush with mortality. At this point, Plath is a clichéd symbol of suicidal poeticism and youthful valorizing of depression. (I have memories of a fellow Guardian editor singing "You don't not do, you do not do" from "Lady Lazarus" in a mockery of her proper bell-like intonation during our Detroit days of being young.)
While Silberman's invocation of Plath's inconsolable rage and death-drive lacks humor, it isn't stiff or overly worshipful. He makes her spirit breathe only to quarrel with it. On the anti-lullaby "Bear," animal imagery gets a bleakly comic twist missing from the heavy-handed Hughes' favored bestial themes. The bottom line is that Silberman is a talented young singer-songwriter. Hospice is not only prodigious in its ambition, it is well-executed. The title of "Thirteen" reinvokes Chilton while the music's glacial-yet-golden shimmer could be a missing early Slowdive track or an outtake from Gregg Araki's 2004 film adaptation of Mysterious Skin. Like another "newgazer," Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, Silberman places the widescreen blurring soundscapes of late-1980s shoegaze bands in the service of American Gothic narrative impulses.