Bryan Parys writes about The Antlers’ Hospice, and how sometimes our connections with a song might not be rational.
“There’s a bear inside your stomach.”
Almost every night of her third trimester, when Natalie undresses for bed, the unnaturally-natural protuberance that has become her stomach throws me into an epistemological stupor. “Bear,” I say to her, as if for the first time, “you’re pregnant.”
Every time, it’s as if my brain is finally starting to cope with this unknown reality. A ball of genes and embryonic memories is forming, kicking, crowbarring its way to life. “I know, bear,” she says, and if I hadn’t seen her nauseous for the last eight months, I’d think it had just sneaked up on her as well.
It seems I forget every time I look away, and when I remember, I feel terrible for that forgetting. It’s been kicking you for weeks—what kind of father forgets that?
The first time you listen to Peter Silberman of The Antlers sing, “There’s a bear inside your stomach / the cub’s been kicking you for weeks,” on the song “Bear,” you’d hardly know it comes from a concept album called Hospice, which revolves around a slow burning symbolic narrative on accompanying someone as they die of cancer. And therein lies the beginning of the problem: there is a view, but there is barely time for a review—time to let something sink in, swirl around, and question those first impressions that seem to never really leave.
Back in 2009 when the album was released, many lauded Hospice as the beginning of something exceptional for The Antlers. Since then, they’ve toured the world and opened for The National. Clearly, the Brooklyn trio is well on their way. Their new record, Burst Apart, was released this past May, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard. Traditionally, I’d be writing about that record, and not about the one that came out two years ago. If I was to go with my gut on my first listen, I’d say that Burst Apart lacks the transcendent atmosphere achieved on its predecessor.
But, after Hospice, I’m uncomfortable stating my opinion so soon. I’m looking back because I feel like I missed something. Maybe that’s the feeling that The Antlers wanted us to feel—to hear the almost-joy of “Bear” and somehow forget that just a few tracks back, on “Kettering,” the very first words on the record are like quarters glinting down a well: “I wish I could’ve known in that first minute we met / the unpayable debt that I’d owe you.”
Natalie and I call each other “Bear.” I’m not totally clear on how it developed, but in general, the origins of pet names contain stories that even Lifetime would consider trite and schmaltzy. So, we’ll leave it with that quixotic descriptor, “cutesy.” Then again, is it better to have no story, the wrong story, or the one that misleads you at first?
A first listen: It begins like a lullaby—a soft, xylophonic melody that massages you into the borderlands of a dream. And though the pace picks up by the first chorus, the pulsing chug of the bass drum and stutter-strummed minor chords of “Bear” would be at home on a non-“Brick” Ben Folds Five track. On most of the record, Silberman’s use of falsetto is so chilling, it doesn’t just sound like it was sung in the gloaming hours beside a hospital bed, but as if it was actually created by the neutered fireworks of a cardiogram machine. But not with “Bear.” There is something almost boisterous about his delivery of the refrain “We’re too old / We’re not old at all,” and I often catch myself, Ray-Bans on, belting it out with gusto as I fly down a sunny highway.
Further listens: I can’t get this song out of my head. And even though the cliché says that it is “stuck in my head,” I’m surprised how long it rolls around in my skull before I start putting it together: this is about cancer and gloomy expirations. As much as I want it to be “our song,” and to sing it for our soon to be cribbed cub, there is logically no comparison. Waiting for a baby is not like feeling helpless while a loved one dies. However, the impression that a first listen left with me is still there. I formed a connection with the song, and I’m not sure why I try so hard to ignore the morbid facts that come to light even if I do not recognize them at first.
At first, meaning, before I moved on and questioned the impressions I thought were the end of the story.
But, to be human is to force connections. If we want a song to be “our song,” we’ll make it happen. People still play the stalker-centric “Every Breath You Take” by The Police at weddings, because the delivery is earnest, yearning. Because it sounds like a swaying campfire song, The Kinks’ “Lola” is still heard on every classic rock station, burly contractors whistling this once-banned paean to bi-curiosity. After the first view, and even beyond subsequent re-views, it’s amazing how long we’ll hold on to the version we want.
Hospice is about a break-up. Or,
Hospice is about watching a patient die. And/or,
Hospice is about beginnings that, when you look again, look like endings.
In the Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man, the eccentric martyr Timothy Treadwell films himself for years as he camps out in Alaska, believing he can integrate into and protect the bear community. He names them, talks to them, gets mad at them—it’s tough to discern whether he thinks he’s being born into their family or the other way around. He wants to belong so badly that when he lives for a series of summers without being mauled, he’s convinced he’s making progress. The bears aren’t just doing what biology tells them, he thinks, but accepting me. So, one summer he stops looking back, and tries migrating with the bears. And then he gets eaten.
We don’t want reality to eat us, so we let fantasy swallow us whole.
If I really wanted to force it, I could say that Hospice’s lesson for a father-to-be is that someday, I’ll have to teach this kid about how all things expire. Then again, perhaps I’m not supposed to worry about when to tell my children about endings, or even worry that most of the world will present them with fantasies long before they can discern the truth.
Maybe a better truth is that through repeated views and reviews, your eyes will open a little wider, if only for a moment. “Ultimately, that’s how this goes, it starts and ends and starts and so on for as long as you’ll let it,” Silberman said. View, review, repeat. He was talking about being on tour, but you need the first story in order to start creating and handing down the next one.
Ok. I think I’m ready to give their new record a another listen.
—Photo Kevin N. Murphy/Flickr