The Antlers released their fifth full-length Familiars (third as a band) in June and a review almost five months later may seem pointless. But looking back at its initial reception, I believe few – if any – albums this year are as undervalued as Familiars. It’s understandable; this isn’t an album that immediately jumps at you, nor is it designed to be. Its release was also ill-timed; summer is not a good time to release a record for a band many associate with complex, unconventionally rendered themes of agony, desire, repulsion, torment and loss.
Based on pre-album cuts “Palace” and “Hotel”, it was fairly easy to anticipate another great album from The Antlers. Yet when Familiars finally arrived, I felt – if not disappointed – then certainly underwhelmed. On previous albums The Antlers constantly amazed by putting the listener through a rollercoaster of emotions by structuring down-tempo – sometimes drone-y, ambient – compositions amidst songs with upbeat tones. This made their last two albums some of the most sonically intense and varied musical journeys existing. In relation, Familiars came initially across uncovering too much of a uniform sonic identity. What kept me gravitating towards it was however not its beauty (that came later), but Silberman’s lyrics. Here, – like many times before – Silberman continues to explore themes through symbolism; if Hospice used a cancer ward as analogy for a failing – emotionally abusing – relationship, and Burst Apart was its inevitable repercussion – hollow sex, paranoia and making mistakes while drunk wrapped up in metaphors of stairs, windows, exits and teeth’s falling out -, then Familiars uses spaces and places with implied dual interpretations representing identity conflicts; the disconnection between past and present selves and the struggle to identify the man starring back in the mirror. But as so often with Silberman’s lyrics, they’re unresolved and open-ended; his words will likely end up meaning different things to different people. Ultimately, it’s a person’s past experiences – with love, loss or inward confrontations – that determine how much and witch emotions one is willing to extract from The Antlers’ lyrics.
On “Palace”, a glowing lullaby with heart ripping horns and elegant piano, he sing about losing control and important parts of yourself when the child inside you grows up and faces the world (it can also be understood as the loss of connection to a loved one in a changing relationship, which makes the lyrics all the more remarkable). It’s a perfect The Antlers track; taking every sonic brick and detail of all their previous work improved to perfection. Second pre-album teaser “Hotel” is almost equally breathtaking; this time using a hotel room as an allegory for the disconnection felt with a person’s past self; “in the hotel, I can’t remember how the past felt / I rent a blank room to stop living with my past self”.
Sonically, these two tracks are the rare occasion when Familiars invites to any sort of immediate satisfaction. Most of the time, the songs slowly sneaks up on you, where I believe one’s past connection to the band is proportionate to the amount of patience one’s willing to sacrifice. But if you’re willing to live and breathe with it for a fair amount of time, Familiars will inevitably reward you. There are many reviewers who addressed this issue, yet they’ve given a score that don’t match their foresight. Joe Goggins of The Line Of Best Fit at least admits this much; “albums like Familiars are a nightmare to score”. The National are here a valid comparison. Like Goggins, I also initially felt Trouble Will Find Me merely as a solid effort before months of repeated spins made all its details and nuances opening up to what I now most likely consider their greatest achievement.
Reviewing Familiars now has the advantage of some gained perspective; while it was fairly easy pigeonholing Hospice and Burst Aparts, Familiars is The Antlers finding their own unique voice; a complex maze from one of contemporary indie scene’s most inventive lyricists, who together with a group of brilliant musicians never hesitate to go off the beaten path. Many of The Antlers’ peers who similarly have found critical acclaim and a solid fan base at the end of the decade, have slowly adjusted their style to fit into a larger context (and as a result, larger arenas). The Antler however remained conceptual and daring. No more than Burst Apart did, this album won’t make The Antlers follow their peers into the world stadiums and arenas. On one hand, it’s a shame; they’re a great live band that more people should experience. But as long as people continue to box them in as a ‘sad band’- who don’t invest enough time into one of the greatest existing bands – none of this will change. But that’s ok. Not every indie band needs to headline Coachella. I’m perfectly fine to go see The Antlers in-front of 500 people at a medium sized club, where I’ve seen them the last two times. Still, if you’re a person that felt a past connection to The Antlers – but let this one slip by– chances are Familiars will feel every bit as rewarding as their previous albums, if not more. Once these songs attach to your intellect, they’re prone to attach to your heart. And what once felt distant and unwelcoming, will wrap around you like a warm blanket and ultimately unravel one of the most beautiful and original listens of the year.