I was a little anxious hitting play on Familiars, the Brooklyn-based trio’s fifth full-length studio album and the second one released on Anti- Records. The Antlers’ last two albums, Burst Apart (2011) and Hospice (2009) have been widely considered “sad,” although I would describe them more as “beacons of heartbreak.” My worry was needless, however; Familiars is not happy, but it lacks the piercingly angsty quality to be found in its predecessors. The album opener, “Palace,” starts with a decidedly twinkly feel, horns heralding Silberman’s soothing vocals, an atmosphere that could not be more different from the way that Hospice bursts into grinding keyboard in “Prologue.” “Palace” sprawls out grandly and lazily, showcasing the horns that largely replace the electronics that previous albums have relied upon so heavily. This song sets the stage for the rest of the album, which is content to sprawl out into a jazz infused daze and gradual crescendo that, despite the lyrics, is never indicative of anything wrong. In Familiars the Antlers have found the culmination of a sound that has been maturing for the past few years, and the result is an album that is both unique and highly listenable.
Don’t let the dreamy sound of Familiars fool you, though; within the lyrics lies an uncertain darkness from which no song escapes. Familiars is not necessarily a concept album, but the theme of self-identity pervades throughout. “Doppelganger” is a terrifying examination of a part of the self that cannot be escaped, and although the song descends into spiraling horns, haunting strings, and guttural growls after Silberman sings “it’s over,” the remainder of the album works through the idea of this Other, and we find it may not be such a monster after all. “Hotel” and “Intruders” follow “Doppelganger” in the theme of the futility of trying to escape yourself: “I rent a blank room to stop living with my past self,” “Hotel” begins, and ends with “in a strange bed, I keep sleeping with my past self.” Through the staccatoed guitar of “Intruders,” the album shifts from treating this Other like the enemy and more like something that needs to be, well, directed (“So you forgot your way? / Well I’m trying to remind you”). There’s a tenuous balance as we are launched into the second half of the album, a desperate desire to cling to what is safe and known while at the same time trying to move forward (“Revisited”). There is never straightforward optimism, but throughout the remainder of the album there is a small but growing sense of hope (“I’m getting ready for when everything is wonderful”). Things are never going to be wonderful; Silberman is far too self-aware for that. But as we approach the album closer, “Refuge,” we’re a long way from the terrifying monster of “Doppelganger.” “Refuge” does not pretend that we’re the same self of the past, but this in no way diminishes our identity, and just because we’re different now doesn’t mean that we can’t take comfort in the things we once knew: “It’s not the house that we remember / it’s the feeling inside it.”
These lines also serve to speak for the album itself. The Antlers are still The Antlers, but they’re very different people from when they recorded Hospice or Burst Apart, and the way the albums’ sound varies through time is reflective of that. Familiars, in keeping with its title, is a different version of feelings we have already known, as foreign as it is familiar, and in it there is both refuge to be found and the promise that this is not all there is.
Recommended Tracks: “Palace,” “Hotel,” “Parade”