For all the Arcade Fire and Radiohead comparisons that were thrown their way, grandiosity was something that always sat uneasily with The Antlers. Prior to their first international (but third album overall) ‘Hospice’, it was still primarily the studio moniker of Peter Silberman, and as intimate as these recordings were, these albums often seemed to push right against the limits of home recording in their ambition and strain.
By the time The Antlers had evolved into a fully-fledged trio, their sound seemed to expand more and more with each release: the electronic diversions of ‘Burst Apart’, the languid beauty of the ‘Undersea’ EP (still for this writer’s money their finest moment by far) and then the grand structures of ‘Familiars’, whose spacious horn arrangements and elegance stood worlds apart from the rough miniatures of Uprooted. Yet even on these albums, Silberman and his colleagues were keen to avoid the anthemic or the easy option – if anything, the one great complaint about Familiars could be just how little gravity there was to moor their dream world to the ground.
Having since placed the band on indefinite hiatus and returned once more to solitary production, this time under his own name, it’s a criticism one might expect Silberman to agree with. But listening to his debut solo album ‘Impermanence’ (following hot on the heels of the ambient experiments of last year’s ‘Trancendless Summer’ EP), in stripping away the additional players and layers of production he’s emerged with his most deliberately blurred and opaque statement to date.
Written and recorded whilst covering from a crippling bout of tinnitus that resulted in temporary hearing loss, Impermanence uses its quietude not to reach out to the listener but to force the listener to bend into its own obscure inner world. The sound, largely dominated by Silberman’s fragile falsetto and washes of electric guitar, resembles a certain model of post-Jeff Buckley singer-songwriter style in form, but offers something far more difficult to ascertain in content.
Opener ‘Karuna’ is a nine-minute exercise in misdirection, with its opening ringing chords hinting at a song that never quite emerges. Instead, Silberman’s ruminations find themselves submersed under reverb, whilst his tentative guitar playing refuses to coalesce into any full-blooded progression. Even a more traditional, folk-derived track like ‘New York’ forgoes resolution in favour of open, unending investigation. The cymbal washes and multi-tracked harmonies of ‘Gone Away’, in their fragility, are as far as this record dares to move towards a climax. That’s halfway through this brief effort, and of what’s left, the title track is a meditative piano piece that plays out as its own slow-fading exit music.
Surprisingly, if there is any comparison to unlock this album, it’s to Slowdive’s original swansong, the label-baffling, career ending beauty of ‘Pygmalion’. Whilst the band had yet to formally dissolve by that point, only Neil Halstead (and, sparingly, Rachel Goswell) are in any way audible: it shares with this album a refusal to submit to standard song structure or to raise itself above a whisper, a calm but forceful exposure of the artist in the state of disintegration. As with Pygmalion, Impermanence is the trace left in an open space; like its forefather also, this challenging and slight work is a portrait of the artist forgoing their past for an uncertain future, existing for only a fragmentary present.