It’s hard to recognize the voice of The Antlers frontman Pete Silberman when it’s not breaking apart at the seams under the weight of his lyrics. Thus, fans of the band will find Familiars, releasing June 16 on Transgressive, ironically named.
This new, medicated version of the band may be the sound made when the band is in control instead of Silberman’s turbulent and morbid muse. Unfortunately, the side effect of making the album you want to make means almost inevitably falling short of the great ones: the albums that want to be made.
Their fifth album is that difficult follow-up effort after breaking out with the masterful—and difficult to follow—Hospice and Burst Apart. The outfit was immediately crowned indie rock royalty with 2009’s Hospice, an album that is absolutely gut-wrenching. Listening to it over and over feels like being compelled to keep touching an exposed sonic nerve. Everything in its place, so landscaped it almost feels in miniature, making its literary device of cohabitation as cancer ward feel like listening to a diorama.
Familiars is quite the opposite: opened up, outdoorsy, even. It almost sounds like the bottom has dropped out of the package that was The Antlers, and the result is a little boozy. Gone are the anguished lyrics, the tight composition, the default falsetto, and most unfortunately, the musical innovation by which The Antlers made their name.
In a recent interview with Jayson Greene, Silberman mentioned feeling burned out on his signature falsetto, feeling the distance between it and his regular speaking voice as something to hide behind. On the Familiars’ opening track, “Palace,” he starts things off by bridging the gap between the two, sliding down into his speaking register and trying on a new vocal role as conversationalist the way you step into a pool. By the third track, “Hotel,” he’s floating over jazz riffs like this is where he knew he was taking you all along.
It feels less like a change of scenery than one of climate. The Antlers have always evoked something bracing. Familiars is fuzzed out and warm, with plenty of lovely moments, but none of them breathtaking. Silberman has described the new album as a process of making peace with past albums, and the trauma of reliving them on tour. Antlers fans will more or less happily follow along to the new landscape, but while touring, Silberman will have to hear in his crowds’ response the enthusiasm and nostalgia for those choking heartbreakers over these pleasant hum-alongs. You don’t get off the hook for brilliance that easily.