When you explode onto the music scene with a high concept debut record, there’s a remarkable pressure put on you to come up with an equally compelling follow-up. Many falter in the face of such a burden, and the sophmore slump applies most particularly to those artists that put their best foot forwards right out of the gate. Many an indie band has been sunk by that second record, concept or no concept, just ask Clap Your Hands Say Yeah about it. With their debut album “Hospice”, The Antlers created a rich and heavily atmospheric set of songs that were all held together by the heartbreaking story of a terminally ill bone cancer patient and the nurse that falls in love with him. For all the pain and darkness the record espoused, it brought the band worldwide acclaim and legions of fans. Now taxed with the issue of recording something equal to or greater than that first album, The Antlers have chosen to give the finger to expectations the best they can in favor of simply trying to carve a new but similarly lucrative path to continued success. They’re tacitly acknowledging that any attempts to recreate or expound on what’s already been done will likely be both futile and harmful to their reputation, so throw your presuppositions out the window and walk into the new record “Burst Apart” with fresh ears.
One of the biggest changes The Antlers have gone through in the last couple years is the full development of a working relationship with one another. Frontman Pete Silberman brought Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner into the project after he had already composed (but not recorded in studio form) much of “Hospice” by himself. Though he clearly couldn’t have brought it to such grand fruition without them, that record can ultimately be viewed as something of a solo effort, particularly due to the very minimalist arrangements on a majority of the songs. Seeing The Antlers live however proved to be a much different story. The songs took on a much more kinetic and thrilling force, lending a new perspective to both the material and the overall band. With “Burst Apart”, that cohesive energy shines through much more clearly and powerfully, which is a big plus when you don’t have a concept to tie everything together. That’s very much apparent straight from the record’s first song “I Don’t Want Love”, a lyrically depressing song but matched with a melody that’s anything but. The way the guitars and keyboards open up in the chorus creates a shimmering and gorgeous path that Silberman takes to push his vocals into the high-pitched, soaring Jeff Buckley sort of territory. For a song that’s so sad, it has a whole lot going for it, which is actually a big reason why “Hospice” got so much attention in the first place. If variety is the spice of life, then “Burst Apart” has a whole lot of flavor to it. “French Exit” keeps the same sparkling instrumental mood of the track before it, but places the emphasis more on keyboards and a French pop electro beat as the title implies. There’s also a light scattering of horns that is so subtle in the background they’d be nonexistent if you weren’t paying close attention.
Where the record really takes off though is on “Parentheses”, in which Silberman puts on his best Thom Yorke to match the moody and ultra-cool soundscape. It takes a lot to pull off something that earns a favorable comparison to Radiohead, but The Antlers not only achieve it but capably hold steadfast to it through the two tracks that immediately follow it. “Rolled Together” is one of those, and its electro-glitch melody is as good as anything on Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs”. The track also functions as the centerpiece of the record, plodding along for 4.5 minutes with the same two lyrics repeated over and over again but never wearing thin or overstaying its welcome. One gets the impression it could have sustained the instrumental portion in the last half of the song for even longer if the band wanted to. There’s an abrupt change moving into “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”, mostly because it’s a very straightforward and traditional song with a lot more range and energy than just about everything else on the record. It makes sense that the song is being used as a “single” to help market the record because it’s the most accessible thing on it, but such ferocity is also not indicative of what you’re getting as a whole. The track actually ushers in the even more lackadaisical and calm final third of “Burst Apart”, populated by the sad trumpet instrumental “Tiptoe”, the swirling, meditative “Hounds” and the sparse yet haunting “Corsicana”. To catch The Antlers firing on all cylinders though, you’ve got to hold out until the end, when “Putting the Dog to Sleep” shows up with an intense, final knockout punch. The song itself is about the ending of a relationship and the worry that you’ll never find anyone else. How it’s presented, with mellow keyboards and the waltzy strike of an electric guitar, develops into something more substantial and explosive. That is what the band does best, ratcheting tension and building to moments of beautiful catharsis. Its presentation is an album-closing warm hug, the instruments providing the comfort while Silberman keeps repeating, “Prove to me/that I’m not gonna die alone”. As the music fades away, continuing to twinkle in an otherwise black sky, you’re left with the impression that there might just be some hope at the end of that dark tunnel.
Those stepping into “Burst Apart” hoping for “Hospice II” will likely be disappointed, but hopefully not too disappointed. The core elements of the band’s sound remain the same, and the reliance on mood and atmosphere makes this a gripping listen as well. What this new record lacks is the unifying theme, and without the connection between songs you can get the impression that the band might be just a little bit lost. The reality is far from it though, and if you take this record song-by-song or in small chunks you may be surprised to find how well it works. Upon getting to know the many parts and how they all function, it increases your understanding of the record as a whole too, eventually peeling back previously challenging or off-the-map moments. It may not be perfect, but it’s about the best thing you can get from The Antlers without pushing for the crutch of of a conceptual piece. The band has fully established their sound now, and with the pressures of falling into the sophmore slump avoided, they can now turn their focus towards expanding upon it.