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For the last forty-eight hours something has been on my mind. No matter what I’ve gotten up to – arranging the repair of a mysterious electrical fault, heading out for dinner and then a bit of local theatre, driving over to my father’s town to photograph his latest series of paintings – there it’s been, lurking in the background like a headache that just won’t go away no matter what’s been thrown at it, a headache that has been slowly making me feel sick.
What’s been the worry? Burst Apart, the new album by The Antlers.
The Antlers’ previous record, Hospice, the first chief songwriter Peter Silberman wrote with an actual band, was a beautifully flawed masterpiece. Apparently a concept album based on an abusive relationship seen through the eyes of a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient, it was an extraordinary work: magically both grand and intimate, uplifting in the way that only authentic melancholia knows how, rustic, vernacular even, but never coyly lo-fi. There are days – quite a few of them actually – when Hospice is in my Top Ten albums of all time. I know every second of those ten songs, and, somehow, those ten songs know me. And there’s no better antidote to loneliness – that inescapable human loneliness we can all experience no matter how much love is around – than music knowing us.
Whatever has happened in Silberman’s life between making Hospice and Burst Apart, it can’t be good. Perhaps it’s the Audi A4 he (potentially) bought with the proceeds of his master-work, or the cupboard loads of new Country Road outfits (ditto), or the comfy wife and kid in the cot (ditto again), I don’t know, but it has sapped him of his musical strength and conviction, his soul. There’s no heartbreak in these songs, there’s no joy, there’s no anger, there’s no god-damn point – this music has nothing to say. This is aural wallpaper. Indeed I’ve tried to imagine the album as the soundtrack to a film. If it were a soundtrack it might just make sense: multi-layered atmospherics the support act to a story about…Christ knows what, because there couldn’t be any soul to that story either.
Not only is there no soul to Burst Apart, there are no choruses, not a single one. The songs – as much as they can be actually called ‘songs’ – just tick by invoking not a single emotion from the listener. The record feels like being stuck at a party where all the faces are blurred and the voices muffled.
It’s obvious that The Antlers simply didn’t know how to follow-up Hospice. To be sure, it would have been a daunting task: the band must have been tempted to try making that great record again, which, of course, would have failed, or they might have tried reinventing themselves into purveyors of noodly electronica a la Kid A by Radiohead (and Radiohead have a lot to answer for here, as they too can focus on inward experimentation at the expense of any true enjoyment).
In the end, Silberman and co have simply turned Ikea into music.
Believe me I’ve tried to understand this record; after all, it is being very well received by the music press. I’ve listened to it while driving – in my part of the world I’m surrounded by big open-sky landscapes, which have always fitted the rollercoaster dynamics of Hospice – and I’ve listened to it closely at home. However, ‘French Exit’, the album’s second track, with its carnival-like keyboard motif, is such an appalling piece of music that I hope to never have to hear it again. Others have commented on the Portishead-like beats of ‘Parenthesis’, which to my humble set of ears sound nothing more than arrogantly retro. And ‘Hounds’, in the last third of the album, could be a tune coughed up for a vacuous remake of Twin Peaks. Mr Antler-man, smothering your guitar in all the effects that you can now afford and twiddling every studio knob you can find so your drums sound as though made by Casio keyboard is no way to create music of everlasting value.
I have – we all have – been here before: a band follows up greatness with something that just stinks. You try to be open-minded, you try to be generous in terms of letting much-loved musicians find a new way of looking at the world; an artist who repeats is categorically worse than an artist who has a go but fails. You wonder if it’ll be a grower. I remember something similar happened during the initial listens to ( ) by Sigur Ros; it didn’t work for me at all, except I couldn’t stop listening to it, until, one day, I understood, or it understood me. But sometimes you just have to cut your losses: the album is still-born. For a band like The Antlers, who made brilliance out of a place where people go to die, that death reference is apt. Even more so considering the last track on Burst Apart. ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ is the closest to something off Hospice, but it finds Silberman singing over and over ‘Put your trust in me’. Not anymore I can’t, not anymore.
I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
“Oh, that’s great!” said a friend over lunch. “They’re just like having an open fire in the backyard!” With that I had the answer to one of life’s great questions – why on earth do human beings like to raise chickens in their gardens? For decades I’d been thinking about embarking on my own poultry adventure, and now that I have an appropriate yard I’d been thinking about it more and more. In fact, I’d become completely obsessed with the idea. But I hadn’t known why. My friend had helped me understand: chooks are comforting.
I googled, I read blogs, I looked at a thousand pictures, I sketched out a design. In the local hardware store I got in touch with my inner handyman and bought what I needed. By the end of the day I’d built what I rather grandly referred to as The Super Structure: four solid posts, eight bracing beams. But the going got tough and my inner handyman went MIA, so I enlisted the help of my brother, who’s good with a hammer and a bit of four-be-two. The next day, I stood in my backyard with a coffee and admired the handiwork. After forty-two years my very own chook-house was taking physical shape. I felt…validated.
A call came on my mobile phone. Stunned, I listened as a friend told me how on the Sunday just gone two good friends, two great people, had headed off on a motorbike ride, they’d had an accident, one had died at the scene, the other was in a coma.
Twelve hours later, after He Who Too Was Stunned and I had huddled on the couch wrapped in a blanket and eaten leftover Easter chocolate, we received the second call – we were now mourning the loss of two good friends, two great people.
I returned to the coop and, alone, got to painting. In silence I painted for hours, as though I would be painting forever. I put the colour to the wood, dark red and pale green, to match the house. I looked down at the bare earth at my feet. Soon there’ll be clucking and scratching and dust-bathing. Soon I’ll scatter feed and my hens will come running. Soon there’ll be eggs.
My friend is right: there’ll be an open fire in my backyard.
I will – we will – need it for the winter that’s coming.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 May 2011.)
A story, it seems, is all about form. There’s the form of the characters, in more ways than one, and the form of the arc of the story, and the form of the point or conclusion. Once all that is resolved – and reaching that stage is no easy task – the whole notion of the form of a story takes on a different meaning.
As previously reported, the good people at Blemish Books are publishing a novella of mine, Fall On Me, in September this year. Whilst the idea for the novella – what if you were the parent of a teenage son who insists on doing provocative things with his body? – has been with me for some time, a couple of years at least, the actual story didn’t show up on the page until April-May last year, when I spent a month in Tasmania courtesy of the City of Launceston.
Now, twelve months later, we’re at the stage of the story taking physical form, which is a bit like watching a thought grow wings and fly off over the horizon. Blemish has edited the manuscript and I’m going through each comment carefully, considering how – and perhaps even why – I’ll respond. We’re also discussing cover concepts; all of us working on the project want to keep it simple, but which design will attract readers (of which, I’m sure, there’ll be thousands…in my dreams)? While this has been going on, there have been attempts to source a quote from a suitably high-profile author who may be open to publicly praising the book in the form of a blurb. And then there’s the launcher: who will formally send the the book into the world?
Publishing, by definition, means ‘to make public’. Here’s this humble little novella, which was meant to be a short story but somehow, for some reason, became something else, a novella that’s come from somewhere deep inside me, my heart and brain and soul, another place too, a place without a name. It was written for myself, really that’s why I wrote it – why else produce a novella-length manuscript? But here it is now, month by month, moving from internal to external, from private to public, from this is mine to this will soon be yours. In all the decisions that are currently being made – this word or that word, this cover or that cover, this launcher or that launcher? – is a leap of faith: is this – am I – good enough?