Arriving two years after their 2012 EP, Undersea, The Antlers’ nine-track Familiars washes open with lead single “Palace,” a soft piano ballad. With its subdued tones and relaxed hi-hat beat, this introduction to their fifth full-length album could be described as an “ease in,” but it’s hardly easy on the listener’s emotions. Reflective and universal, its lyrics provide the hero of Familiars with his opening scene: “You were lighter when we thought like little kids […] we were beautifully oblivious.”
Warm trumpet, courtesy of Darby Cicci, threatens to steal the spotlight from Peter Silberman’s airy falsetto in the song’s first three minutes before Silberman is joined by backup from drummer Michael Lerner. By 3:30, the trio sound less heartbroken and vulnerable. Released late March, “Palace” forecasted a beautiful, concert-hall worthy album, an expectation met squarely by the rest of Familiars, due June 17th in the US via ANTI- Records. (Stream it now via NPR.)
Conflict enters the storyline when “Palace” ends on a diminished seventh, casting an unexpected gloom over its growing harmonic optimism. “Doppelgänger” thickens the plot; this theatrical second track enlists more drawn-out trumpet, a cold string arrangement, and eerie music-box bells, elements that render it desperately suitable for a film like Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009). “Hotel,” the album’s moody second single, delivers itself through heavy fog and heavier metaphors. “In a strange bed, I keep sleeping with my past self” gives fans something to gnaw on.
Darkness lifts gradually on the following tracks, but an emotional emanation remains in the form of muted synth overtones. Sunlight finally peeks through on “Director,” a lengthy, downtempo piece with syncopated drums. According to a press release, Lerner’s drumming provides the “arrhythmic heartbeat” to Silberman’s narration and Cicci’s antagonistic “funeral horns.”
This narration hits stunning notes in “Revisited,” when he relays the pleas of his character’s personal Mal Cobb: “Just take me! / Just take me to the rusty city we perfected / that holy summer we first found!” Silberman’s response cuts deeply into these memories, untethering him, “The place you’re stubbornly protecting is the only pretty thing that we own now / and we can stay here to wither […] but your fantasy’s a prison.”
“Surrender” shuffles in and has eyes only for what’s ahead. “We have to make our history less commanding,” is the key lyric in the horn-dominated piece. But if the trumpet line is meant to be the antagonist here, then this is the fairy-tale version where the antagonist has had a change of heart. The various layers of this penultimate track surrender only to one another; as Lorde might say, they’re on each other’s team. And the storyteller, the trumpeter, and the pacemaker, continuing to practice teamwork, find “Refuge” in the concluding track of Familiars.
The abundance of musical talent between Silberman and Cicci – and the band’s eager exploitation of this – lifts The Antlers into a truly magical class of indie rock. As a trio, they’ve not only constructed soundscapes on Familiars richer than those belonging to any of their previous albums, but they’ve constructed soundscapes that surpass other baroque-pop artists with much larger lineups.