It’s probably hard to discuss an album from The Antlers without comparing it to their previous work at this point, at least for me. Familiars is an absolutely gorgeous album, one that’s well worth exploring for hours on end with headphones cranked as high as you can stomach, which should be enough to recommend it on its own merits. But from a critical perspective, it begs to be analyzed in comparison with the band’s previous work. Fortunately, in my opinion, that only enhances the excellence of the album, though I wonder how useful this perspective is for the novice.
The good news is that this should be easy to fix. To those of you who are new to The Antlers, I recommend that you stop whatever it is that you’re doing and you immediately go and purchase a copy of Hospice, their breakthrough album (at least among the music critic intelligentsia; while it made several Top 10 lists in 2009, I would highly doubt that it sold more than a hundred thousand copies, much less went Gold or above). I would prefer that you get in the car and drive to your closest independent record store, but I understand that may be a significant demand of some of our readers, so I will let a quick purchase online slide…this time. It’s not a difficult listen, like most critics’ faves are; in fact, it’s filled with huge melodic hooks and incredibly moving instrumentals, all hanging on an easily digestible allegorical storyline of a disintegrating relationship between a nurse and a terminally ill cancer patient. Though the subject matter is bleak (and the lyrics often make this abundantly clear–if you don’t feel at least the beginning of tears when listening to the bridge of “Two” or the end of “Wake”, then it is possibly that you are an android), The Antlers are able to provide enough hope through their music that the listener knows that just because these are the worst emotions you can deal with, that does not mean that this is the end; there is still the possibility of triumph, the chance that redemption is still possible.
Burst Apart dealt with similar emotions, this time substituting the dying patient narrative with a more conventional analysis of the end of a romantic relationship, while also expanding the band’s sonic palette. Hospice often relied on toy instruments or thin sounds, but Burst Apart was built on expanding the sonic depth of each instrument. It’s this path that The Antlers continue on with Familiars. The musical exploration is not necessarily with chord progressions or melodies, but instead on textures and deepening the general sound. Think of playing a piano, where instead of relying on three notes to determine the shape of a chord, instead the entirety of both hands is used to give the maximum amount of color with each chord. It’s in this regard where we see the evolution of the band’s sound. For example, the single “Hotels” in many ways would sound like it could easily fit on Burst Apart (in fact, it shares many melodic similarities with “I Don’t Want Love”), but there are enough nuances in the song that distinguish it from its predecessors.
There are numerous slight subtle musical touches that reveal themselves after multiple listens, especially on the second half of the album. The upright bass on “Revisited” is a particularly striking example: the particular tone of the upright as opposed to the typical electrical bass provides an excellent counterpoint to the melodies occurring simultaneously over the top. This is typical of the areas where The Antlers are content with exploring throughout Familiars, and rarely does the band attempt the big hooks found in either Hospice or Burst Apart. All the choruses and climaxes are the result of slow burning builds instead of sudden explosions; that is to say there are no counterparts to say the fiery refrain of “Bear” or the catchy jangle of “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”. This can make it a disappointing listen at first, but hopefully it’s apparent that there is more lurking below the surface that’s worth exploring. The band takes its time with each track, furthering the process the band began with the stop-gap Undersea EP, with nearly every track clocking in above the five-minute mark (with the two below it coming in at 4:59 and 4:56). That said, the songs rarely lose focus and should hold the listener’s attention throughout.
I haven’t been able to deduce whether there is a coherent story or theme throughout Familiars, but it’s probably worth noting that the lyric sheet has alternating lyrics in italicized and normal print, indicating multiple viewpoints at the very least. The good news is that the music underneath seems to be worthy enough of continued exploration that it’s still probably a productive use of time to determine the overarching story. It’s hard for a band to continue to impress after an artistic triumph like Hospice, but The Antlers are providing a good roadmap on how it can be done.