By: Josh Leichter  | 

Morphine Alarms Out of Tune: A Review of Hospice

There are times when we get so swept up in the books we read or the movies we watch that the stories we are told over song get overlooked. Some of us look to music as the background noise to help us study or that extra person in the passenger seat accompanying us on a long, lonely drive or subway ride. This is not to say that we ignore what we listen to. After all, if I were to ask you to name your favorite song, the chances are that you would be able to tell me the lyrics. Especially nowadays with platforms like Genius, the era of mishearing lyrics are long past us, and despite the annotations from the artists themselves, we are still free to come up with our own meanings to what we hear. Every now and then, an album comes along that requires no need for annotations or extra commentaries because the artists paint such a vivid picture that, at the moment we begin listening, we understand what they are talking about. These are albums where the tracks bleed into one another, where we find ourselves emotionally invested in the people being sung about. In a way, they serve as a modern-day version of vintage radio serials, except instead of running to the next album, we linger a little longer and return to Track One, ready to relive the experience for a second, third or fourth time.

One album that does this perfectly is The Antlers’ 2009 album, Hospice. Following two previous releases that flew under the radars of many, the release of Hospice saw critical acclaim and widespread coverage with NPR placing it as number one on their year-end music review and music publication Pitchfork placing it at number thirty-seven out of fifty, going so far as lauding the album’s ability to “emotional destroy listeners.” In an era that was overwrought with indie albums of high-school angst and the late 2000s turmoil over recessions and depressions, what The Antlers succeeded in doing was tapping into another aspect of traumatic life experiences that many felt were not discussed in mainstream music at the time. In addition to this, the band’s usage of soft vocals and unique instrumentals, interspersed with the chilling lyrics, created an album that fought against the grain of the cut-and-paste chorus that was common in other genres of music.

The story of Hospice follows a nameless male hospice worker who finds himself caring for and subsequently falling in love with a terminally ill patient who is often referred to as Sylvia by fans of the album, inspired by the name of the album’s third track which is a reference to Sylvia Plath, the famous American poet of the 20th Century. Within this relationship that the narrator carves out, we hear about the emotional toll it takes on both parties. In the sole track devoted to Sylvia’s perspective, titled “Thirteen,” singer Sharon Van Etten lends her voice to the haunting plea of a patient alone and dying, begging her caregiver to help save her from an impossible situation. It sounds romantic, but as the tracks that precede and follow this one talk of heavy and sensitive subjects like abortion, post-traumatic stress disorder and abuse, we come to understand that their relationship was never equal to begin with, rather it was built on these unhealthy foundations that served as crutches for two broken lovers.

There has been much speculation as to whether or not the story told is autobiographical, with the band’s frontman and writer, Peter Silberman, choosing to play coy about what is and isn’t fact, simply stating for the past ten years that it is true “to an extent.” Regardless of how much truth Silberman decided to put into the story, listeners may find themselves empathizing with the characters and subject matter that the music and lyrics put forth in the nine tracks. (The first, titled Prologue, is entirely instrumental.)

Overall, Hospice provides a rich musical experience for those that listen to it, with the band successfully choosing to subtly riff on previous melodies used both within this album and those previously utilized in their first two releases. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, taking the time to listen to it and experiencing a story in a new way provides a richer understanding of how versatile storytelling can be, whether it engages the senses via sound or sight. 

Hospice is currently streaming on Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music and Apple Music.

Photo Caption: Following two previous releases that flew under the radars of many, the release of Hospice saw critical acclaim.
Photo Credit: Pixabay