Sad Subject Matter: An Opening

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is to sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway


The same thing could be said about all forms of art. Great art seems to share that unique capacity to educe human emotion, particularly those that are rather sorrowful, such as Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Peter Silberman of The Antlers, a band based in Brooklyn, certainly aligns his music with Hemingway’s painful artistry. Their album, Hospice, released in 2009, is perhaps one of the darkest, saddest and loneliest concept albums of the 21st century. Hospice follows the protagonist, The Caretaker, as he meets the bone cancer patient, Sylvia, in a hospital. The album describes the abusive relationship he willingly takes on: a self-destructive path that will only lead to his downfall. The album begins when they meet in hospital (“Kettering”). This is succeeded by the portrayal of his attempts to help the patient (“Sylvia”), then the Sisyphean effort that drowns him (“Atrophy”). Abortion follows (“Bear”) with the realisation that he can never help her (“Two”), death (“Shiva”) and finally, self-awakening (“Wake”). Aptly named the “kiss of death” by the Guardian, the painfully convoluted relationship manifests itself almost as a “hunger game” between two people. “The record is about an isolating relationship between two people…” Silberman explains. “…How the outside world becomes cut off from that and how they become cut off from people they know and people they care about.”

It is the Tartarus of solitude: isolation and misunderstanding intercept two people who want to make things work. The cancer aligns with the relationship’s inherent sickness, a sickness that is irrational yet deadly. Love, at its worst, has become toxic and destructive, something which is clearly reflected by the first and the final lines of “Kettering”:

I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you.

You made me sleep all uneven, and I didn’t believe them when they told me that there was no saving you.

Their third track, “Sylvia,” which is inspired by the death of Sylvia Plath and Leonard Michaels’s fictional Sylvia, is a hybrid of fear, violence and pain. The line “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven” outlines the hopelessness the couple fall into and the eponymous poet’s demise hints towards their own. Silberman uses a bear as an analogy for an embryo in the arrival of an unexpected pregnancy. This is “something” that they need to “put an end to” by “cut[ting] him from beneath.” Every track has an alternative title, which allows the audience to fully experience the solitude created by, and simultaneously trapping, the protagonists. “Thirteen,” alternatively entitled “Sylvia Speaks,” is the one and only track wherein we hear Sylvia’s own voice, encased in a mere five lines:

Pull me out…pull me out…can’t you stop this all from happening?

Close the doors and keep them out.

Dig me out…oh, dig me out…

Couldn’t you have kept this all from happening?

Dig me out from under our house.

An album that earns them international fame, Hospice resonates with the sadness that is found in many great arts. If happiness is the ultimate pursuit of life, how do we explain our ceaseless, timeless flirt with sad subject matter through the arts?

Great art often aims to disturb our soul, not to please it; yet, it does not mean that our souls are not pleased by the fragmentary disturbance art can create in us. Silberman started to work on Hospice when he was 21. At such a young age, the record itself is incredibly powerful without a sense of self-pity. On the surface sadness is provoked, but underneath lies the silk-like sorrow for those who are looking for it. “I think the goal of playing the song is just to connect to people who are listening to it and hopefully, not have it just be an overwhelmingly sad experience,” Silberman elaborates during an performance in 2010. “Hopefully it kind of maybe begins that way but can kind of pull itself out of that and become a more hopeful, comforting thing almost. I think sad subject matter does not necessarily need just to be depressing. I think if you can find a way to relate to it, that is almost uplifting in a weird way.”

Uplifting…in the weirdest way…


*Issue#5 Solitude, coming on 22nd October.

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