Peter Silberman is the front man for New York trio The Antlers, an indie-pop / dream-pop band that’s three for three on solid LPs, though may suffer from the dreaded “peaked on their first album” malady. That album, 2009’s Hospice, is perhaps the best narrative-based concept album of the 2000s, telling the tragic and beautiful story of an abusive relationship between a hospice care employee and a terminally ill patient. There are seriously chilling and wrenching moments on that record, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard. What amazed me, in some recent cursory background research, was that Silberman wrote the album when he was only a twenty-one year-old student! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
Anyway, his new record is the definition of atmospheric, low-stakes minimalism. Forget the xx – it often takes these six tracks multiple minutes to add a single instrument to the omnipresent reverb-dripping, finger-picked guitar riffs. The constant presence of tape hiss and Silberman’s bare, prominent vocals, with only sparing use of harmonies, make this album an incredibly intimate experience. It really does sound like you’re sitting in Silberman’s New York apartment alongside him – you can even hear him get up from his chair at the end of tracks. These songs are skeletal, to be certain, but they often add just the right instrumental touch to give them some understated grandeur. My favorite, the second-sequenced “New York”, brings in an absolutely gorgeous flute section, one that still sounds charmingly fuzzy and analog, half-way through. French horns follow suit through the song’s closing. “Gone Beyond” adds light percussion and bass to its guitar arpeggios, as well as some additional vocals and the sound of rain, to close out the track with the album’s biggest ‘crescendo’. The rain opens up the following track, “Maya”, which abandons all instrumentation aside from a single guitar. Halfway into “Ahimsa”, Silberman brings in a gentle bass drum and light synthesizers that sound dawn’s first rays of sunlight, peeking over the horizon and casting the world in a glowing warmth, completing the touch with the sounds of birds chirping.
That being said, the production work is still sparse, the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory. But the sound of the record perfectly accompanies the general theme – accepting impermanence, imperfection and the fleetingness of time as essential elements of the human condition. On opener “Kuruna”, Silberman demonstrates incredible patience, allowing the song to meditate on his voice and guitar for close to six minutes before a finale featuring repetitions of the titular phrase, a Buddhist concept of compassion and awareness. The slow and drawn-out build seems to suggest Silberman’s own desire to take things slowly despite his limited time on earth. On “Maya”, he delivers the album’s thesis on a platter – “Our bodies are temporary, let it be known / From the start we start to lose them”, a somewhat depressing sentiment until it’s followed by “Try to see like you see at your very last light / Like you’re watching a flood from a comfortable height.” Rather than succumb to existential dread, Silberman uses mankind’s temporality as an excuse to appreciate the little things in life, and live each day like it’s his last.
“New York” serves both as an homage to Silberman’s home and also a meditation, an exercise in appreciating the world carefully and with fresh ears and eyes – “When the room grew loud / I learned to stand in back / Behind the crowd / Dam canals with cork / Like I never heard New York”. “Ahisma” (another Buddhist concept, this one of non-violence) opens by stating “Time is all we have / I hope I have enough / Enough to show you love” before a lullaby-like melody finds Silberman singing “No violence / No violence today”. The album closes with an instrumental that takes a page out of William Basinski’s book, allowing analog organs and pianos to decay and submit to static and tape hiss, a sonic representation of the album’s theme of inevitable submission.
For a six song, 37 minute side project, this is about as good as it gets. The album is conceptually focused, the arrangements are beautiful, the songs feature some great melodies, and the sparse instrumentation and production are done with tact and purpose. The record is beyond gentle, so some might critique it as ‘boring’, but there’s a whole genre based around ‘boring’, and I think this record is a welcome addition to the canon of lyrical, melodic ambient music. The album doesn’t shoot for the moon, it knows what it is, but like the Buddhist philosophy it so frequently quotes, it executes splendidly its modest intentions. Impermanence delivers on all counts, and I anticipate enjoying it for years to come.