Hello. I am putting my third/fourth paper on the blog because I wanted to include links to relevant interviews, moments in the music, etc.
Two ways to tell the story:
Narrative subjectivity in Hospice
The Antlers’ Hospice has been called a concept album. All that is meant by this is that it follows a semi-cohesive narrative. This narrative charts the relationship between the Narrator and Sylvia, characters whose roles waver between codependent lovers and a nurse whose patient is dying of cancer. Space, time, and identity float away from their foundations. The band’s front man himself, Peter Silberman, said it best:
Well, Hospice is sort of told like a dream, where things are constantly transforming and confusing, time is arbitrary and illogical, locations become different locations. The record’s about life becoming indistinguishable from a dream, or in this case, recurring nightmares.
The literal facts of the storyline crumple under the hazy logic of a dream. But Hospice does have a logic of sorts. The characters are consistent, even though they may change costumes. And the narrative follows a trajectory from the beginning of the album to the end.
We know, for example, that the Narrator makes himself a prisoner in his bond to Sylvia; that he is transfixed in spite of her abuse; that he ultimately loses her and is saved when he finally reconnects to the outside world; that even after his liberation he has nightmares of her.
We also know that the album must exist as a part of the narrative. In the liner notes to “Prologue,” the Narrator addresses us directly: “Before diving into this, I think some background would be useful.” From the beginning, we are told that this is not only the story, but the story of his telling of the story (this becomes important when we learn how much his relationship to Sylvia was predicated on silence). He leads us into the narrative with two octaves of scalar descent; we climb down those notes as Dante into Hell. But we do not abandon all hope: we know from the beginning that he lives to tell the tale. The motif of the descending scale returns in “Wake,” subtitled, “Letting People In.” After Sylvia’s death, the Narrator finally speaks to someone outside of the relationship. The recurrence of the scale cues us in to the fact that the telling of the story is taking place during “Wake”: we are hearing “Prologue” again, but from a different perspective.
But if the retelling exists within “Wake,” then where does “Epilogue” fit in? In the record, it is placed after the story is told, and the nightmares continue to haunt him once he has broken out of isolation. Since “Epilogue” takes place after the narrative appears as an object in the storyline, it cannot be a part of the story the Narrator tells. He may not ever relate the events of “Epilogue” to anyone, and he certainly does not do so during “Wake.” Hospice, then, is not a stream of consciousness, nor even a transcription of his deliberate account of the tale, but a psychic map of how the events are constellated in his memory. It is not so much a story as his understanding of the story. It is a “concept album” in the sense that a concept is a thought or an idea. It is the way in which he is making sense of what happened.
So, the Narrator is in some sense unreliable—not that he is lying to us or obscuring any of the facts of the narrative, but his memory is inherently subjective and contingent on the whims of his unconscious. We can think of the album as presenting us with two interlocking realities: the events as he “actually” lived them, and the experience as it is constructed in his psyche. The Narrator is continually losing control over his understanding of the relationship’s history. He only has agency over what he tells us: the linguistic reality of the narrative, i.e. the lyrics.
That is why the sounds of the record can be so disorienting: they serve to situate us within the lived spatiotemporality of the narrative and hint at the gaps between the actual and virtual realities. One example of this can be found in “Wake”: the Narrator refers to his listener’s “helicopter [that] came and tried to lift me out.” That helicopter sonically arrives during “Atrophy,” but the Narrator fails to be rescued and is left to his entreaties for relief from his suffering, which eventually subside to a hushed cry of pain.
Various reviewers have commented on how well the album is able to sonically transport the listener into the setting of a hospital; its sounds often imitate the “singing morphine alarms” and other medical machinery. That is absolutely true, but they do more than that. The noise unnerves us not just because hospitals are unnerving, but because it gives us the sense that the Narrator’s idea of the narrative is fundamentally as distorted as the recording quality. The sounds are the cracks in the mirror.
The instrumental passages, then, are particularly unsettling. We can lose ourselves in them; they lure us into a trance, and we feel that we are dreaming. They often lack a discernible melody, consisting of barely anything more than a harsh, whirring fuzz. In those instances, the Narrator has most profoundly failed to make sense of his story. He is incapable of expressing it in words or wrest a cohesive “meaning” from the memory of his trauma. He is as lost and disoriented as we are.
But the Narrator loses control over his retelling even when there are lyrics. This is most clear in “Bear” and the subsequent track, “Thirteen.” “Bear” at first appears to be a departure from the narrative: it follows the story of a young couple deciding to have an abortion. But the relationship of the lovers in “Bear” falls into the same patterns as the Narrator and Sylvia’s. They become isolated from their friends; he is conciliatory; she is hopeless; their conversations dissolve into arguments; they are “terrified of one another.” Even the hospital recurs as a setting.
Although the details of the situation have changed, the characters in “Bear” are the Narrator and Sylvia. The melody of the song is recycled in “Epilogue,” (again, locating us within a gap between the lived and virtual temporalities) in which the Narrator describes his vivid nightmares of Sylvia after her death; “Bear” is one of those nightmares. This is hinted at within the song itself: “if this isn’t all a dream, well then we’ll cut him from beneath.” Although the Narrator is still “telling” the story in a sense, he does not have power over it. He is held captive in his dreams. In “Thirteen,” he loses verbal agency altogether. We hear directly from Sylvia after her death. She is the voice of a ghost: Sharon Van Etten does not sing so much as breathe the melody of the song.
“Two,” then, functions as an awakening. In a surge of logorrhea, the Narrator tries to regain control of the narrative. The first track on the second side of the album (the listener must literally get up to flip the vinyl over), it is the record’s most lyrically dense song. As the Narrator recounts his “awakening” to the oppressive dysfunction of the relationship, he wrestles the story into his own grasp. If he can only have agency over the verbal retelling of his story, then he will use as many words as possible to take charge of it: “this all bears repeating.”
So, it is appropriate that “Two” shifts back into the past tense. Thus far, tense has been malleable: the Narrator begins in the past, and then is virtually “transported” back to the time of the story in “Sylvia,” addressing her directly. The present tense continues through “Atrophy” (she is still “living…in the front of [his] skull”) and as he drifts into a dream. When he regains his agency in “Two,” he snaps back into the past tense. This is maintained until “Wake,” the moment in which the narrated story is contained, where he shifts into the present. The present tense continues through “Epilogue”: unlike the virtual “past-present” of “Sylvia” and “Atrophy” (in which the Narrator flashes back to the past) the present of the last two tracks is occurring in the lived reality. We are experiencing it with him.
And it is at this moment, after the Narrator grasps at agency over the telling of the story, that Sylvia dies. I do not mean to imply that this reach for control is what killed her; rather, it was necessary for the aftermath in “Wake.” In order to let people in and assemble a conscious retelling of his trauma, he had to recognize his need to own his experience.
It is this need that drives the Narrator to construct a “moral” to his story: after the descending scale recurs in “Wake,” he utters a series of instructions, culminating in the emphatic repetition of “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve that.” It is both a literal and a melodic answer to his supplication in “Atrophy”: “Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this.”
But Hospice is not a triumphant story about someone who lives through suffering, derives a meaning from it, and comes out stronger on the other side—or at least, it is not unequivocally so. The Narrator remains wounded by his trauma, and his interpretation of the experience is full of holes. Even “Prologue,” one of the songs in which the Narrator seems to have mastered his storytelling, is told silently—through liner notes rather than lyrics. He says, “I won’t pretend I understand, because I can’t, and I know I never will”—not only is Sylvia’s suffering incomprehensible, but also his own. As an audience, we come away from the album with some sense of catharsis, but one that is disquieted by heartbreak and unease. We know that he will never be the same, and neither will we. We, too, have been traumatized by the record. It will haunt us; it will come back to us in nightmares. And, although we (unlike the Narrator) can revisit the experience whenever we choose to, it will exist chiefly in our memory. It held us captive for an hour, and then it let us go.
We, too, must construct a mnemonic geography of Hospice, one that will inherently be subjective and pliable. We cannot know the album, and we will never understand it. It does not exist to be understood. It will never really make sense—there will always be lines like, “Someone has to speak with their teeth behind their tongue.” What’s more is that even as we listen, the album is in a constant process of slipping away from us. That is our real trauma as an audience: we, like the Narrator, are prisoners of a dream. All we can do is listen as it buries us awake in sound, until the last notes fizzle out on us.