Antlers leader Peter Silberman’s new album Impermanence is so hushed and intimate that he might as well be whispering the songs directly to you.
It’s a quiet album by necessity: the singer developed a condition a few years ago that resulted in the temporary loss of hearing in one ear, and a painful sensitivity to everyday sounds, including his own voice, followed by the constant static of tinnitus. It became unbearable enough that he moved out of Brooklyn to upstate New York and the increased likelihood of occasional quiet. When his sensitivity to noise receded, Silberman returned to writing songs on a nylon-string guitar, and Impermanence began taking shape.
The songs unfold at a measured a pace, stretching past five, six, almost to nine minutes on opener “Karuna.” Silberman sings in a murmur, surrounding his voice with luminous and spare electric guitar and, as often as not, silence. Though there are also occasional woodwinds, brass, keyboards and percussion, Impermanence is almost like an experiment in minimalism, to see how fully Silberman can deconstruct songs and still make them compelling.
Quite a bit, as it turns out. “Karuna” sometimes leaves pauses lasting several seconds between chords, one fading away almost completely before the next takes its place. All that open space is spellbinding, and it makes subtle shifts in musical dynamics into major climactic moments. It’s practically revelatory when Silberman switches from isolated chords to subdued strumming on the bridge to “Karuna,” or falls into a cadence of sorts on “Ahisma,” a song that unspools slowly, building to a refrain that could have been a moment of chant-along catharsis in a noisier song.
The contrast between sound and silence extends to the lyrics, too, as Silberman addresses his condition in oblique ways. “I’m listening for you, Silence/but god, there’s so much noise,” he sings on “Gone Beyond,” where there is the slightest tension between the gentle circular guitar pattern and Silberman’s subtle ebb-and-flow melody. There’s a more desperate cast to “New York,” which catalogs the endless blaring, grinding and clanging noises that forced him out of the city. “When the walls gave way/ I had to flee, I had to back away/ As the whole town barked/ Like I never heard New York,” he sings. By “Ahimsa,” he’s found a rueful sort of acceptance: “Before you wake the dead/take a pause,” he sings. “Instead of deafening nonsense/share silence.”
That sentiment could pass for general advice at a cultural moment of constant cacophony, when silence often feels like a rare and precious commodity. In fact, it’s essential. Emphasizing silence as much as sound on Impermanence is Silberman’s way of saying that without the former, the latter is just noise.