We Saw This: The Antlers
Music is, among many other things, a form of self-indulgence. It's an excuse to stay in your room all day with the door closed and cry. I suppose we feel particular loyalty to people or things with which we've spent days crying, which is why I always feel like I have to go see The Antlers whenever they play Brooklyn. I was pretty sure, this past Monday night, that that was the reason everyone else in the audience was there, too.
The Antlers played at Glasslands last week, both to promote their new EP Undersea, and to raise money for Charity Water. They'd announced the show that morning on their twitter and it had sold out in under an hour. They're one of those Brooklyn bands who for a while now have been hovering right on the edge of enormous mainstream success, part of the "Dark Was the Night" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" cool kids' lunch table, along with the Dessner brothers and Sharon Van Etten and all the other people who either play with or have opened for The National.
I was introduced to The Antlers though Hospice, their third album which most people know as their first. Frontman Peter Silberman released two solo projects before Hospice, then teamed up with Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner, who now comprise The Antlers. Released in 2009, Hospice is a juvenile, astounding masterpiece of bleeding-heart experimental indie rock, telling the story of a relationship's breakup through the metaphor of a hospice worker in love with a terminally ill patient. Last year they followed that up with Burst Apart, a dreamy, heart-grindingly emotional album. Burst Apart represented a maturation musically, but still spoke to the same stubborn, eternally adolescent emotion that made Hospice so addictively wrenching.
They've spent the last year touring, and on July 24th released Undersea, an EP of four long, dreamy tracks. Each album or EP they release gets less literal, less concerned with story and lyrics and more about musical experimentation, more opaque and richer for it. Undersea takes much of what lived baldly in the lyrics on Hospice and Burst Apart and funnels that longing and torment into the music. The same want and refusal now underscore the drifting, surprising builds and turns of an album that shows the influence of numerous post-rock genres. In the way one would expect from a band made up of the very young and very talented (Silberman was barely 23 when Hospice was released), new influences are constantly being added to their work, and the change is always immediately noticeable. Whatever this band's been listening to for the last year gets folded into the new songs, divergent ideas layered together. As pretty much everybody's been saying, Undersea is gorgeous.
And they open by playing the entirety of it, from beginning to end, without much pause to say anything to the audience. Between the second-to-last and last tracks they let us all know that if the tracks are unfamiliar, it's because they came out less than a week ago. Of course, from the crowd reaction, it's hugely unlikely that the songs are unfamiliar to anyone in the room except maybe the bartenders and the opening band.
They did this the last time I saw them, too, playing Burst Apart straight through. As an idea, this seems antithetical to the point of hearing music live: If I wanted to listen the songs as they proceed on the album, couldn't I just stay home and listen to the album?
But in practice it does the opposite. It reminds you exactly why live music is a good idea. With the three members of the band right there in front of us and with the throwaway urgency of performance, this music emerges as a single project with the last two albums. They work as a coherent progression, one long thematic spine holding it all together.
I'm leaning against a wall far in a corner by the stage, cuddled up to a lego-tower of precariously stacked amps, dodging some very young, very drunk, very pretty girls swaying in front of me. Watching the band, I realize that Undersea is just as much an open wound of an album as the other two, just as much about the things tear us apart from and fling us inexorably toward one another. It's still about the way the heat-seeking forces of our hearts are greater and stronger than the logics that want to keep us safe and clear-headed. It still depicts the ways we try to separate ourselves from what and whom we love and our inevitable failures to do so. This emotionalism comes out in performance, clearest in the eight-minute "Endless Ladder." In an interview, the band stated that the EP is "about coming out of 2011 alive." In performance, that sense of unlikely survival is palpable. It remains the best reason to keep listening to their music.
After Undersea they move on to tracks from Burst Apart, mostly the more opaque and challenging pieces akin with Undersea, including a fantastic version of "Parentheses." From there they play tracks from Hospice, particularly "Two," a vitriolic, insistent depiction of a relationship breaking down, another one that thrives in concert. Everyone around me is half-swaying, half-dancing out of rhythm because people who like this kind of music don't have any rhythm to speak of. But they do so with great, deaf-to-the-real-world enthusiasm. They're all having a party with their own associations, with their own past hurts, with their private aching hearts, willing to let this band put words and sound to their experience.
They close with "Putting the Dog to Sleep," a song that uses the image of having to put down a dog with a broken leg as a metaphor for trying to love and trust someone, and "Wake," the nine-minute final track on Hospice. "Wake" is small, intense, and haunting on the album. In person it's an anthem with big guitars and rock 'n' roll as exuberant as hard weeping, the kind of let-go crying that gives you a headache for three days. It's glorious. Everyone around me loves it, swaying and bumping into each other; Everyone is so happy to be so unhappy. Perhaps that's the defiance of it, that songs like this celebrate our worst experiences, find something in them that's perversely joyful.
Previously: We Saw This: Wayne Wonder