Hospice refers to care that is given to terminally ill patients. This care may refer to physical, mental and psychosocial needs that the patient has developed through the course of the illness. Coming across this album, one can only assume that it has to be yet another sensitive album about death and the sense of loss that drags along with it. The Antlers is one of my favourite bands after listening to this album. The Antlers is an American indie rock band that released their third album Hospice in 2009 as it saw critical acclaim soon after its release. I only came across the album (and the artist) recently. It interested me that it was a concept album, meaning that unlike normal albums, all the songs in the album were not disconnected. The album is a full-weave, each song a request to hear what comes next. There are many interpretations of the album and its autobiographical nature, but I can only write about mine.
Prologue: The introduction to the album struck me as vague. I was advised to listen to the album closely and carefully, which made me feel that the sounds in this short track made me imagine being inside someone’s lungs. I already knew this album was about hospital care, and it was disturbing to imagine the way that I did. I hope other listeners did not go through the same. Or I hope they did.
Kettering: Doing a quick Google search will tell you that ‘kettering’ is not a meaningful word at all. It is, in fact, a cancer centre in a place called Kettering. This is where the true nature of the music begins to faze over oneself. Peter Silberman is a talented vocalist. His voice is calm and generously quiet in this song, as it begins to tell the story. I assume this song is from the perspective of the nurse that works in a hospice facility. The patient (a woman) already seems an abusive and intolerant person, sickened by her proximity to death. I cannot even begin to describe how destructive this song can be if listened to in the right way.
“But something kept me standing
By that hospital bed
I should have quit but instead
I took care of you”
Sylvia: This song starts again with a weird sound and calm vocals. The sound was, and this is true for the whole album, extremely disturbing. The patient (who has a name now) is being addressed in the song, and I assume this time it is more personal than just the nurse tending to her. This time, I think it is the husband of the patient, and this makes it even more moving for me because he keeps repeating “Let me do my job…” in the verse of the song. It may as well have been the nurse. The name Sylvia also refers to the poet Sylvia Plath who committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven. This is one of favourite songs on this album. It is vocally an achievement that few vocalists can produce.
“Sylvia, can’t you see what you are doing?
Can’t you see I’m scared to speak
And I hate my voice because it only makes you angry…”
Atrophy: The truth about the song is plain and simple. The patient is the victim, but that has not stopped her from being abusive and paranoid. Death is an experience no one should have to have dragged through life. The husband, who I assume is the protagonist of the song, is torn by his inability to act for his own welfare because of the sense of commitment for his wife. His self-esteem is atrophied. Helplessness is so tenderly captured in this song that it is almost too clear to the listener the quality of life the husband is reduced to. Midway in the song, there is a strange build-up, the ending to which really surprised me. After a continuation of yet other strange sounds and noises, the song ends with lines that have been etched in my mind.
“I’ve been repeating your speeches, but the audience just doesn’t follow
Because I’m leaving out words, punctuations, and it sounds pretty hollow.”
Bear: This song stands out in the album as one of the three singles of the album. The most upsetting idea about this song is that it is about abortion. The “bear” being referred to is the unborn child of the couple. It only vaguely fits into the whole theme of the hospice care and the patient’s misery which is why I assume it is about various trials that the couple has to go through and is not chronologically arranged. I have used this word to describe several songs in the album, and this song will not be an exception. It was immensely disturbing to hear him sing,
“We are not scared of making caves, or finding food for him to eat.
We are terrified of one another and terrified of what it means.”
The melody is upbeat and catchy, and if one does not know the lyrics, it is a perfectly happy song. And it must be. I do think it has been written by a younger protagonist, and the naiveté of the boy is clear and evident. This is the point in the album that the album loses its pace, and slows down to just a trickle of melancholy.
Thirteen: Sharon Van Etten is an introspective vocalist and has always been one of favourite female musicians. She is dreamy and surreal, and she contributes that to this song which I assume is from the perspective of the patient. This is the first, and the only, time that we see real vulnerability, the patient’s. She is distressed and emotionally shaken, begging to be saved and disappointed that no one can really help her. The lyrics and the vocal part is too short, but it is so hauntingly beautiful that for really long three minutes, you will forget that she is an abusive spouse and not a loving woman and that she reduced her husband to a commitment he is supposed to support.
Two: As aforementioned, this album is completely open to interpretation. This is the first time that I imagined that probably; the nurse and the husband were, in fact, the same person. If this is true, the album takes a newer form, the nurse met the patient in hospice. He already knew the state of her body when he married her. He did marry her; it is evident from the lyrics of the song. This song gives us a much more in depth understanding of the patient herself and we realize the fact that she is heavily disturbed and has been sick since she was a young kid. Her illness has always been a part of her, has always kept her from being who she was, and this has led to her being exceedingly paranoid. The husband is devastated, and this song is not much different from Atrophy because here, too, the husband is making it very clear that he has stuck by her side even with the state of her mind. It might also not be surprising to learn that the patient also probably has bi-polar disorder, a mental illness that makes it very difficult to stay around. Like Bear, the song has a buoyant melody and the true nature of the song is only revealed in the lyrics. The ending of the song is sudden and distressing, and I assume here that the patient has finally passed away.
Shiva: The song was extremely difficult to understand but after much thought I realized what imagination the lyricist has used in writing it. The patient is dead, but the protagonist is imagining that he is dead, and that his own face is turning into the face of his dead lover. It is reprehensibly disquieting that one can actually feel that way, and the singer has resigned to exhaustion. He gave up too much to be with his lover, and now that she is gone, his helplessness is of a varied kind. I was surprised that Silberman took so long to reach the sorrowful stage of the album, that I misinterpreted the songs several times.
“Well, I was lying down with my feet in the air
Completely unable to move
The bed was misshaped, and awkward and tall
And clearly intended for you.”
Wake: When I listen to this song, all I can see is the protagonist passing his time through the place that the lovers called home. It is hard for him to explain why he never left her, why he stuck with her even though he knew that he could not save her, as her husband or as her caretaker. The relationship has taken toll on his mind, and his weakness is bare in the song. The last few lines of the song are said to himself as he tries to convince himself that he did what he could but that none of it was really his fault. He repeats one line several times and it is sad that the line is, “Don’t let anyone tell you deserve that.”
Epilogue: This is the last song of the album and my favourite from the album. It’s melody is unmistakably beautiful, and a final goodbye to the woman that he loved, the woman who probably destroyed him. Even after her death, he is disturbed that she has buried him with herself and he tries to save her, but all she wants is to be buried in the ground together.
“I’ve woken up, I’m in our bed, but there’s no breathing body there beside me
Someone must have taken you while I was stuck asleep
But I know better as my eyes adjust
You’ve been gone for quite a while now, and I don’t work there in the hospital.”
The album has caused me ample depression and disturbance, as surprising as that was for me. Listening to the whole album was difficult, and I really do think there is some science involved in making it a particularly unsettling album in general. Very few pieces of art have the ability to really unsettle you, and I think that considering how refreshingly amazing this album was, it was worth it.