We would still rank The Antlers’ 2009 album ‘Hospice’ as one of the greatest records of the 21st century. Emotional, powerful and poignant, it discussed the complex issues of terminal illness and grief with a clarity that couldn’t fail to give you goosebumps. They followed this up with the anthemic ‘Burst Apart’ in 2012 and the more experimental ‘Familiars’ in 2014, which went on to affirm why they are such a cherished band. Since then, the band has been on a hiatus of sorts and it’s mainly due to frontman Peter Silberman being diagnosed with various hearing conditions including tinnitus. With his future as musician in doubt, he moved from the (what was now becoming physically painful) bustle of the city to upstate New York and started wearing a hearing aid to protect his ears. While pondering his future and getting to grips with this new way of life, he started to write the six songs that make up ‘Impermanence’.
Sparse and minimal from the very first second, the LP opens with the eerie, nine-minute long ‘Karuna’, a slow-burning song that is clearly influenced by Peter’s fragile state of mind when it came to these medical issues. He pleads ‘I need some proof that you exist, can you reach me?’ with a tender falsetto before than anguishing over the fact ‘I need your name’ as the minimalist guitar work moves into a waltz-like blues sound. ‘New York’ follows and this is a more straightforward song in the vein of Jeff Buckley or Sparklehorse. It’s a love letter of sorts to the incredible city but it also touches on how miserable the crowds and 24-hour nature made Peter: ‘When the world gave way I had to back away’. Following this is ‘Gone Beyond’, which starts off as a dark lullaby similar to ‘Hospice’ highlight ‘Bear’. With gentle drums and a floaty lucidity in the vocals, Peter repeats the title and reveals how he wants ‘you to hear what I hear – a temple ticking away’ as the song explores different percussion sounds and strange but satisfying guitar sounds.
‘Maya’ is an altogether more acoustic offering and it showcases Peter’s flair for writing visceral yet disturbing lyrics that explain how he feels people feel about him when offering sympathy: ‘You’re watching a flood from a comfortable height’. He opens the song by saying ‘bye, goodbye’ (possibly to his old life?) before then progressing onto ‘night, goodnight’ with an almost bittersweet tone. ‘Ahimsa’ starts with the lines ‘Time is all we have. I hope I have enough, enough to show you love, before our time is old’ and then goes on to repeat the line ‘no violence’ over and over again. It’s a reflective piece that not only finds Peter looking at his own mortality but also the issues engulfing the wider world (especially right now). There are moments that remind us of ‘Stop Your Crying’-era Spiritualized as Peter croons through the seven minutes and there’s almost a Disney feel with the way it closes with bursts of birdsong. The title track closes the LP and is a short footnote that is entirely instrumental and almost incidental before subtle feedback wraps around the final seconds.
Peter Silberman said he wanted ‘Impermanence’ to ‘provide some comfort to those of us grappling with transition, which is, undoubtedly, all of us’. He’s definitely achieved that with this sensitive portrayal of his own woes and the way he is learning to live with them. Plug in your headphones, put this record on and prepare to embark on an intimate and compelling journey.