Green to Gold represents a mostly successful sonic and lyrical calming of the storm for The Antlers.
Seven years after their last album, The Antlers have quietly — literally, figuratively — returned. Marking their sixth full-length LP (fourth as a full group), Green to Gold is an album that few are likely to encounter without prior Antlers exposure. It’s of some benefit to the record, then, that one can fairly assume such contextual knowledge, as the radically different shape of the band’s latest is best appreciated as a seven-years-later waypoint. Of course, there’s an accompanying narrative: after the release of 2014’s Familiars, the band’s singer/songwriter/originator Peter Silberman succumbed to a trio of serious hearing ailments that forced him to temporarily step away. By necessity, he began listening to gentler music, and by choice, he started living a gentler life and moved out of the city to a gentler upstate New York. Green to Gold bears out this narrative. 2009’s Hospice launched the band into the music-nerd stratosphere, and the time-place factor can’t be discounted, as the album ticked many of the late-aughts, Pitchfork-approved boxes: their sound was a hazy mix of art rock and dream pop, but also defied genres in the manner of any number of indie rock outfits of the day; it was lightly conceptual and heady, tracing across the album the story of a care worker as metaphor for a failing relationship; and it was speckled with memorable tracks replete with memorable cynicisms: “And all the while I’ll know we’re fucked / And not getting un-fucked soon.”
So while the group continued to refine their particular rock sound and deepen their emotional palette across two further albums and an EP — Burst Apart, Familiars, and Undersea, respectively — Green to Gold is perhaps best understood in counterpoint to Hospice. Look no further than the new album’s second track, “Wheels Roll Home” — the group’s first lyrical offering in the better part of a decade, after an instrumental opener here — which resounds as a resolute statement of intent, about the work it takes to become un-fucked: “Don’t go before you leave / Every second we got, we gotta make believe / That you’ll be right back like you never left / Like you mailed yourself to your return address.” It certainly reflects a more (jarringly) hopeful tenor for the heretofore moody, broody Antlers, but this isn’t just easy optimism. Rather, the group is taking a more meditative stance, an act of manifesting peace where there used to be bleak catharsis, most literalized on the chorus of album highlight “Solstice”: “Sayin’ woah-woah, woah-woah / woah-woah, woah-woah / Keeping bright, bright, bright.”
The Antlers have always thrived on a masterful, often dissonant fusion of songwriting and musicianship. In their preceding work, the joint lyrical and sonic textures were rife with urgency and anxiety, dialogues between nihilism and longing playing out over tracks that felt like they were racing toward destruction, or else, just as often, observing some tempest from the inside. Plinking rhythms and dark crooning kept songs on edge, the content built upon missives on and confrontations with myriad emotional and existential agonies, alternately capturing the beauty and misery of collapse. A melange of electronics, strings, and lite-jazz were infused into the band’s more traditional rock constructions, keeping things unsettled and turning what in lesser hands would be boilerplate emotional exorcism into a kind of apocalypse. But such squalls are calmed on Green to Gold, and the band’s sound is soothed into an easy, swaying lilt that holds across the entire album. Where earlier efforts often felt legitimately threatening, there’s a woozy romanticism beneath this latest, the work less informed by any self-seriousness than it is an organic chill, with even enough jaunty rhythms in a number of these tracks to perfectly background some alt-friendly first dances. It’s a sonic shift as much as it is a psycho-emotional one.
That’s not to say this is any less complex a work than previous efforts. The absence of emotional and aural punctuation admittedly gives the impression of a more minimalist listening experience — Silberman’s vocal vacillations between falsettoed lament and harrowing screech are greatly missed — but the instrumentation is no less lush, only softened and steadied. This is no pluck-and-preen work of songwriterly self-satisfaction, and instrumental opener “Strawflower” declares this new, deceptively-complex mode: opening to the hum and brrr of cicadas, the track briefly looms on a synthy warble before a single drum bleeds in, its steadying beat followed by an exchange between piano and guitar that baselines the song’s duration, as additional notes, including bass reverberations, are slowly layered on top. It’s the difference between delicacy and flimsy, and it feels something like an accumulation of the interpolated, between-the-storm moments from earlier albums made here into a cohesive, mature whole. Put differently — logically, as Silberman is now 35 — you can distinctly feel the shedding of twenty-something emotional histrionics.
The trade-off, then, is that Green to Gold doesn’t sustain back-to-front as effortlessly as earlier albums. “Just One Sec,” the album’s fifth track, marks an organic midpoint, a pause and thesis of sorts after an impressive four-track run to open the record. In it, the song’s narrator doubles as an Antlers mouthpiece, cycling through such lines as “Do you see me now, do you see me then? / Could you clear my cache momentarily? / For just one sec, free me from me?“ to “Free me from your limiting ideas of me / Free me from the version you’d prefer I’d be.” It’s not exactly a subtle reflection on their artistic shift, but then, that’s never been The Antlers’ forte. But after this and the subsequent “It Is What It Is,” a politically-minded song with plenty of throwback cynicism, the early morning, rainy day mood loses a bit of its easygoing oomph, fading over the album’s somewhat weaker back-half. A film was timed to release with the record, and in it, gorgeous, natural compositions background Green to Gold’s tracks: shadowed silhouettes rise against twilit skies, lazy ripples roll across a family pond, and a couple flit through golden and green fields in modes of modern and interpretive dance. It’s beautiful, visceral stuff, but at some point, its same-y compositions start to lose power. The album suffers from similar snags. There’s no denying Green to Gold’s technical craft or delicate vigor, but somewhere, roughly three-quarters through, it starts to feel somewhat too much like background music. But if green doesn’t quite become gold here, The Antlers still execute a mostly successful one-eighty, impressively pulling off a rebrand that few indie rock contemporaries of the past decade have managed.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 4.