(Diversions, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.)
This, the third installment of Diversions, finds us with Peter Silberman, founder of the Brooklyn based trio The Antlers. Self-released last month, the group’s new LP, Hospice, has been making the rounds of those in the know, touted as one of the year’s best kept secrets (I would have to agree). Below, Silberman waxes on the life changing prospect of concept albums, their power, and his most treasured/obsessed over titles. Discussion encouraged.
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I’ve always obsessed over concept albums. I’ve struggled with heavy reading due to a poor attention span, but that’s not to say that I don’t love to read, and when I finish a book (a task I take an excessively long time to do), I become obsessed with that too. But the first time I witnessed the power of a novel harnessed by music, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Concept albums and story albums, when done right, are life-changing. We subscribe to them nearly as strongly as religion, and take personal offense to those that shrug off one of our favorites (not due to a difference of taste, but out of frustration that such a person is willfully making their lives worse by failing to put in the time and attention required.) The term itself is deterrent enough for some, and even hated by some of the musicians creating them. But there’s no denying the difference between a collection of songs and a work of interrelated pieces, forming some kind of all-powerful whole.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in writing about concept albums is the acknowledgment that you’re never going to “get it”. You’ll develop your own idea as to what it’s trying to say, or what it says to you, but ultimately, you’ll argue and revise your ideas about what the creator’s trying to get across, until you realize that you’ll never know exactly what the writer was thinking. But the final step is accepting that, and realizing that that doesn’t matter. Music belongs to everyone who hears it.
This is a list of my most obsessed over. I’m leaving off many important ones, and am unaware of so many more, and for that, I apologize. Many of these are recent records, but as far as I can tell, the concept album is a (relatively) new thing. There are forebears to these, like Dark Side of The Moon, Sgt. Pepper’s, & more, but the following are the albums that seem to fully embrace whatever it is that concept albums are.
Cursive :: The Ugly Organ The first concept/story album I ever became interested in. When I was a teenager, I always thought of this as a monster story, in the realm of Frankenstein. Years later I’ve found something different in it. That’s not to say that it’s not about a monster, it’s just a different kind.
The Microphones :: The Glow pt. 2 One of the most difficult albums to get to the bottom of, as far as the purpose goes. Microphones albums are dense, cacophonous, and beautiful. The album Mount Eerie was a close contender here, but in a way this one’s much more mysterious. For a long time I thought it was about a connection to nature. It wasn’t until rather recently I began to hear it as a breakup album.
Radiohead :: Kid A / Amnesiac / OK Computer I can’t say anything about these that hasn’t been said before and more effectively. Suffice it to say they’re all brilliant and it would be criminal to omit them.
Gowns :: Red State The most underrated on this list. I try to tell everyone I know about this album, but it’s too bleak for most. Red State’s a story of seemingly-pharmaceutical drug addiction, starting low and sinking lower, until a bittersweet departure and redemptive finale. Completely haunting.
Sigur Ros :: ( ) The fact that this record speaks so clearly through essentially one unintelligible sentence is a testament to its power and conceptual success.
Page France :: Hello, Dear Wind Something about this record gets me every Spring. What’s unusual is that it’s sort of twee upon first listen, but there’s so much depth and so much to discover lyrically here.
Okkervil River :: Black Sheep Boy Another album that, after hundreds of listens, had me convinced I knew what it was about until I stepped away from it for awhile. Black Sheep Boy is incredibly complete as a story, and unbelievably heartbreaking.
Liars :: Drums Not Dead There’s a darkness in this one that seems to tie all of the songs together. Recurring characters (Drum, Mt. Heart Attack) and the feeling of struggle and battle. I absolutely don’t understand Drums Not Dead, but I know that I’m not supposed to.
Flaming Lips :: The Soft Bulletin This album is full of so much wonder at the enormity of life and the inevitability of death, as if sung by a child first learning about his own mortality. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” is either my favorite album-closer of all time or my favorite song of all time.
Neutral Milk Hotel :: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea The winner. I could mention Anne Frank, or the Holocaust, or love, or (as has been suggested) sexual abuse and familial dysfunction, but the best way to understand In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is to listen to it over and over and over again.
Lastly, I don’t KNOW what any of these are about. This is just what I think at times, and I often change my mind. Discussion encouraged.