Before You Die: Hospice

By Emma Rickett, Staff Writer

In The Antlers’ third studio album, Hospice, the songs take the listener through a relationship between a hospice worker and a patient with bone cancer, metaphorical for an abusive relationship. The album opens with “Prologue,” a somber instrumental to place us in the mood for the story to follow. While the song itself has no lyrics, liner notes can be found within the physical album sleeve describing the woman and relationship the album follows. The notes open with “Before diving into this, I think some background would be useful” and we are taken into the past with “phantom limbs” and hospital visits. 

“Prologue” slowly melts into the next song on the record, “Kettering.” This is where the listener is introduced to the relationship between narrator and patient. This song seems to be more of a description of our patient, “a hurricane thunderclap,” as the singer puts it. This track grows quickly around the halfway point with loud instrumentals. The remainder of the song has no lyrics, just a heavy sigh at the end. Lyrically as well as instrumentally, I think this song is a perfect representation of the album as well as a characterization of the albums’ main character. It starts slow and sad and keeps those moods while exploding with intense emotion. 

The third song on the album, “Sylvia,”  takes a less direct route of singing about the patient. Sylvia is still a song for the lover in hospice but uses the story of Sylvia Plath to explain the emotional turmoil the patient is feeling. By using two different lines in the chorus, “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven / Go back to screaming and cursing” and then “Sylvia, get your head out of the covers / Let me take your temperature / You can throw the thermometer right back at me,” this shows the narrator is desperately trying to get his patient to cooperate with him, even if it results in pain for both of them. This track is arguably the most gut-wrenching on the album, as the hospice nurse would rather both parties suffer emotional turmoil. The outro encapsulates the one-sided love from the nurse, as he claims he “hates his voice because it only makes [her] angry.” This track also has a fierce instrumental, again working incredibly with the emotions of the song.

Atrophy” is the fourth track on the album, introducing a far more sorrowful description of their relationship. This is the first track on the album that I think fully engulfs the listener into the intensity and abusive nature of the pair. Our narrator feels as though he can not win, no matter what he tries; “In your dreams, I’m a criminal, horrible, sleeping around / While you’re awake, I’m impossible, constantly letting you down.” The narrator is realizing that all of his efforts from “Sylvia” are meaningless, as he bears witness to her “screaming” and “expiring.” Though the nurse holds these feelings, he also feels trapped, as seen in the line “With the bite of the teeth of that ring on my finger, I’m bound to your bedside.” He loves this woman dearly and strongly, but it is obviously one sided. 

The next song is the only one that strays from the concept and touches on pregnancy. The pregnancy in “Bear” is not a positive, like many would think, but a tug and pull between the couple. The tune is upbeat, but the lyrics allude to abortion and regret. The narrator claims the couple is not afraid of providing for the child, but rather they are “terrified of one another.” The outro is reflective of the tug-and-pull, as the lyrics go back and forth between “Just too old / We’re not old at all.” This song sounds the happiest upon first listen, but the lyrics show this song is full of regret and a strong difference of opinion.

Thirteen,” featuring Sharon Van Etton as the female lead, splits Hospice into two distinct sections. This song shows that the female patient also shares the intense feelings of feeling scared and alone from the patient. It exemplifies her need for help and support, clearly stated in “Can’t you stop all this from happening?” The second verse introduces the death of our female lead, using past tense in the same sentence in verse one; “Couldn’t you have kept all this from happening? / Dig me out from under our house.”

On track “Two,” we are introduced to the death that was forecasted in the previous track. The male nurse that has served as our narrator is informed of the patient’s death, something he “didn’t know he wanted.” We get an extraordinary metaphor of the patient’s bone cancer, when the narrator describes her cancer as “It tore apart the canyon running down your femur / … And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room / But I hid out in the hall until the hurricane blew.” This is the second time the patient is referred to as a hurricane by the nurse. Though this part of the story is consistent with the story we have been following as listeners, the theme of disappointment for an event that should be celebrated from the lone track, “Bear,” creeps into the lyrics. The lines “Wearing silver rings with nobody clapping / When we moved here together we were so disappointed” compare the situation to the pair’s relationship. Silver is used in certain cancer treatments, and silver rings allude to the idea of a wedding. Of course, the next line is about moving in together, but not in the nature one would think. The hospice worker and his patient have moved in together within the hospice location, which is far darker than moving in as newlyweds. Further along in this track, the narrator expresses how he feels that all of this has been his fault, “Two people believing that I’m to blame.” 

Shiva” is another telling of the female patient’s death, opening with “Suddenly every machine stopped at once”. The most important line in this song comes at the end of the first verse, “The bed was misshapen, and awkward and tall / And clearly intended for you.” The entire album follows the painful, toxic relationship between hospice worker and patient and this line shows how after her death, the nurse is able to see her for how she treated him. The song itself is not too complicated or as ‘deep’ as the others, but the title adds a level of interest. Shiva is a Jewish tradition where families mourn for seven days after the death of an immediate family member. The second half of the album has followed the death of the patient, but this seems to be the most direct statement that she has passed.

The final track with an original title is an almost nine minute “Wake”, where the listener peers into the nurse’s mind after the death of his terminally ill lover. The end of the song contains a repeated “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve that” eight times. Before this direct ending, the lyrics “Some patients can’t be saved / But that burden’s not on you.” The ending of this track is a message to the nurse, he has done everything in his power to save his patient, but it did not go as planned in the end. The refrain at the ending of the track strays away from the metaphor and is far more direct in the phrasing of the abusive relationship. 

The epilogue of the album uses the same melodies from “Bear” and is a closing letter for the rest of the album. The nurse tells the stories of his nightmares after his lover’s death scene by scene. I believe it is important to note he describes his dreams of her as nightmares, reflecting his feelings of the relationship and the patient. The first sequence of the patient is the same in his nightmares as she was when she was alive with “no interest in the life you live.” He falls back asleep after waking from this nightmare, but now the pair are in a morgue, then at her funeral where the nurse is trying to dig her out in a final attempt to save her. The chorus revisits the angry patient that was introduced in “Kettering” and “Sylvia,” “You’re screaming / And cursing / And angry / And hurting me / And then smiling / And crying / Apologizing.” Though the nurse knows all of these things and remembers the angry patient he cared for, he sometimes wakes at night and believes “someone must have taken [her] while he was asleep.” This final track is a perfect reflection of the relationship and the album as a whole, combining every piece of the patient after her death. She was angry and mean, but the narrator loved her and she remains in his “nightmares.” As a whole, Hospice is an incredible metaphor for an abusive relationship, full of intense feelings, regret and a memorable story line. This is an album I believe that everyone should listen to and appreciate in its entirety at least once in their life. Peter Silbermen, the lead singer for The Antlers, was able to capture intense and unique emotions and translate them perfectly on this record.

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