To hear The Antlers tell it, life is not always a picnic. This is, after all, the band that compared lost love to a cancer ward on their epic heartbreaker of a debut, 2009’s Hospice. And their follow-up record, Burst Apart, was filled with imagery that likened relationships to burning houses and dogs with broken legs. No happy endings here. No, this Brooklyn trio has built their catalogue on the rock solid foundation of lyrics so painful that they might as well be open-heart surgery paired with some of most atmospheric, subdued, and complexly layered instrumentals in indie rock today.
That skeleton is still very much intact on their latest record, Familiars, but this is The Antlers with a whole new skin.Gone are the crisp percussive beats of tracks like “Kettering” and the jaunty bluesy grooves of “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”. Some listeners may be sad to hear those elements go, but their replacements are every bit as gorgeous. And while their first two albums had been embroiled in the past, Familiars is about moving on and holding onto hope, however precarious it may be.
The Antlers are at their moodiest and most atmospheric on this album; they’re very nearly treading on shoegaze territory here. This is an album chockfull of cymbal caresses, muted horns, spidery guitar lines, and silky keys. There’s nothing overwrought or in-your-face about it.
As a result of that, it’s not really built for casual listening; put it on in the background, and it’ll stay that way, melding and coalescing into one 53-minute chunk of swirling guitars and muted horns. It’s better consumed as a whole. Skip to one of the middle tracks and it’s sort of like landing in the middle of a murky haze with no idea which way’s up or what direction you’ve come from. You’ll just get lost without the whole thing to orient yourself.
Familiars benefits greatly from opening track “Palace” with its shimmering keys, whispering percussion, and wistful horns to ease you into the album. At first, this seems like familiar territory: Peter Silberman sings about a lost love who has grown into someone he doesn’t recognize and he yearns for the careless childhood together. It sounds like the perfect setup for yet another heartbreaker, so it comes as a welcome surprise when the track breaks open midway through and Silberman lets his voice soar and promises his love, “I swear I’ll find your light in the middle, / where there’s so little late at night, down in the pit of the well.” See? There might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all.
Still, there’s no out-and-out sunshine and rainbows. Familiars has some pretty sinister, like in “Doppelgänger”, where creepy horns and a slinking, languishing tempo back Silberman’s breathy, paranoid queries, “Can you hear me when I’m trapped behind the mirror? / A doppelgänger roaring from my silent kind of furor?”
That fear of self is echoed later in “Intruders”, which starts off sounding positively carefree, until it morphs into a much more aggressive missive. Silberman promises, “And when my double scales the wall, / I’ll know exactly where he’s landed and I’ll surprise him. / Then when he’s captured, / With his hands bound I beg for answers to all my questions, like / ‘What happened? / Why’d you let me let you in when I was younger?’” For all this album ruminates on the past, it’s just as much about getting answers and moving forward.
There are no radio-ready singles or sing-along melodies here; the track that comes the closest is “Parade”, which is also one of the album’s most fully realized and one of the few that stands up well on its own. It’s got a swaying groove and jazzy trumpets that crescendo perfectly to complement Silberman’s confident affirmation, “And I can feel the difference when the day begins/ Like all I know is, ‘This year will be the year we win.’”
Rather than rest on the melancholic laurels that brought them so much acclaim in the past, The Antlers explore a whole range of emotions on Familiar: the paranoia of “Doppelgänger”, the hope of “Parade”, and the wise self-awareness of “Surrender”, which implores that “we have to make our history less commanding.” None of them make such a deep and shattering impact that the sorrow of Hospice did, but then again, the fact that the band has moved past emotional sledgehammers specifically crafted to break your heart in favor of more mature musings shows just how much they’ve grown.
In the hands of a less capable band, Familiars would come off as inflated and hubristic, but Silberman, Darby Cicci, and Michael Lerner skip right over “overblown” and land right on “masterpiece.” Familiars is beautifully crafted with barely a weak moment to be found. There’s no unifying theme or story to bind it together like Hospice, but it’s still a nearly flawless cohesive whole. It’s a soundtrack for deep, dark nights you spend alone; depending on what you need at the time, it’ll soothe, placate, comfort, inspire you to stop living in the past, or give you hope for tomorrow. The fact that its lyrical musings are encased in such lush, melodic instrumentals is just the cherry on top of the sonic sundae.