Full of slow-burning, serious tracks and framed around a vaguely sketched, yet specific theme of dealing with a child’s illness, The Antlers’ long-percolating and chronically tasteful record Hospice is a perfect-on-paper candidate for the indie rock hosannas it’s finally receiving. Songwriter Josh Silberman’s wincing falsetto makes it all seem awfully heavy, anyway. But from its first proper song, “Kettering,” on, the album’s predictable rushes from spare folk to full-band crescendo seem like checked bullet points of modern rock earnestness. Its anthemic aspirations and morose subject matter have lured comparisons to Arcade Fire. But where Funeral was sparkling with brain-burrowing hooks and a brave “At least we’re still alive!” derring-do, Hospice is very much stuck in the moment of its tragic tale. It feels deflated and powerless more than triumphant. Compare these tracks to the fearful, frustrated rage of a similarly specific ill-child song like Sleater-Kinney’s towering “Sympathy”; numbness is an equally valid reaction to horrid circumstance, sure, but it’s hardly as compelling a listen. And there are barely any memorably wounded choruses to help power through the pain. Hospice contains lots of intricate, slaved-over texture, but its crests are almost never catchy in the pop sense.
Scattered moments on the record deserve unequivocal praise, though Hospice’s grand narrative ambition makes them harder to enjoy as single servings. Its best song, “Bear,” starts as a charming nursery rhyme and even breaks fleetingly into a breezy strum-along. Its cub-in-stomach imagery suggests a meditation on a pregnancy/abortion scenario that’s a square peg in album context, though. The following “Thirteen” is abstract, lovely, and slight. Angelic vocals serve as epilogue to some rattled ambiance and, for once, it doesn’t strain to shoehorn in any supposedly climactic bits. This is occasionally a very pretty record, most effective in hushed, soothing folky tones. But a sedate bedside soundtrack wasn’t what they were going for — and certainly not what the Sylvia Plath namecheck was intended to communicate. Ultimately, Hospice contains many rote signifiers of an “important” record but lacks the brand new, unexpected moments that designation demands.