It's become a classic maneuver: Ambitious, young rock band follows a direct, emotive breakthrough record with a retreat into cerebral electronic abstraction. If I were writing the rock playbook, I'd call it the Kid A Lateral. In the case of the Antlers, the move feels not only appropriate but necessary. The Brooklyn band's Hospice was one of the best albums of 2009, but it was also the most emotionally exhausting entry in the expansive catalogue of bleak, confessional concept album's since Tim Kasher dragged his divorce into the studio to make Cursive's harrowing Domestica. If you haven't heard Hopsice, there's little I can do to replicate the experience, though as a basic sketch I'd offer that it's set in a cancer ward, makes frequent reference to Sylvia Plath, and ends with an "Epilogue" whose chorus goes: "You're screaming/And cursing/And angry/And hurting me/And then smiling/And crying/Apologizing." So, yeah, it's not exactly "Hey Soul Sister." In the aftermath of such a scorching self-purgation, what's a band to do but try to reconstruct their world one beat at a time?
As it turns out, Burst Apart finds the Antlers undergoing the best kind of reinvention, one in which a willingness to seek out newer sonic frontiers helps the band access a more nuanced emotional palette. The starry synth rock of "French Exit" and the gorgeous, slow-mo atmospherics of "Corsicana" are exactly what you'd imagine cautious optimism to sound like: The overall mood is foreboding, but the shimmery melodies stand out in bright relief. And even when the band revisits the despondent emotional terrain of Hospice, they're more concerned with evoking melancholy than with wailing themselves raw. "Parentheses," for example, is nothing if not downcast, but it sounds like a guitar-driven Portishead revamp; when Pete Sliberman sets his falsetto over the track's dour beats, he even sounds a bit like Beth Gibbons (though Shara Worden's guest vocals are equally as haunting). The barbed freak-folk of "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" is the closest the Antler's come to rehashing Hospice's apocalyptic outbursts; it speaks volumes about the band's emotional progression that the number serves as a jagged interlude to Burst Apart's meditative poetics rather than as a showstopping climax.
That said, no one should've expected these drama queens to reform themselves entirely overnight, and sure enough, when Burst Apart draws to its conclusion, the Antlers can't resist the allure of a grandiose finale. "Putting the Dog to Sleep" is a post-rock power ballad that aims to end the album with both a bang and a whimper, and, proving that sometimes over-emoting is actually just the right amount, Silberman delivers the brokenhearted vocal performance of his life over a spacious blend of simple, soul-styled guitar and bewitching electronic noise. It ends with Silberman repeating, "Put your trust in me, I'm not going to die alone/I don't think so." Casual fans might suspect the Antlers of laying it on too thick, but as the exclamation point on a powerful album that finds the band moving carefully toward tear-stained uplift, it couldn't be more affecting. Sure, rock fans who esteem subtlety over all other virtues will have good reason to be put off, and would probably prefer that the Antlers had allowed "Hounds" to close the album with its ambient, brassy regalia.
Call it manipulative if you want, but the Antlers are a band that's drawn to the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. They don't always land on the right side of good taste, but even their missteps are a testament to how much more they risk than the average cred-seeking indie minimalist. Burst Apart is concerned with something more pure than aesthetics; it's a candid, sometimes painfully candid rarity in a time when critics regularly praise as "demanding" music which neither solicits nor rewards any emotional investment on the part of the listener. The 2011 version of the Antlers inhabits a strange middle-ground between compositional minimalism and moody, emotional maximalism, and it's unclear how much there is to get out of Burst Apart if one isn't willing to meet them halfway there. But those willing to follow will be rewarded with the year's most honest—and with enough listens, maybe its best—rock album.