‘Hospice’ Capitalizes On The Freedom Of The Rock Opera Genre
Published: Thursday, December 10, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Well-constructed and thoughtful lyrics can be indescribably powerful. Hearing those notes play behind words that actually mean something, words that have a point to make or a story to share, can multiply the intensity of any song.
Such was the case when I came across The Antler's song "Two" the other day. The words were sung so softly that I could hardly make them out, but when I consulted trusty Google to fill me in on what I was missing, I found that they dramatized the poignant story of a woman slowly dying in a hospital while her husband or fiancee reflects on all of the emotional chaos that the process has dealt them.
Yet, there was so much more going on in the song than that sentence tidily wraps up; little side notes that did not seem to fit into the plot were sprinkled throughout. Intrigued, I did a general search of the band and discovered that their latest album, Hospice, which contains the song "Two," is a rock opera about a hospital worker who falls in love with a patient dying from bone cancer.
A rock opera is a type of album in which all of the songs follow a storyline or share a common narrative. Not surprisingly, many turn into musicals. In fact, Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar did just that. Rock operas are a complete gift for people like me — the kind of listener who is more familiar with and partial to chapters and sonnets than riffs, chords, and scales. The literary mastery is still present but there are so many more possibilities to express the emotions behind the story than a book or poem allows.
Never has a scene involving the death of a loved one, like that in "Two," been more powerful than in the context of a rock opera. It's like reading a novel in which the characters are turned into singers who are able to scream or whisper, speak quickly or slowly, and inject as much or as little emotion as they feel. Plus, instrumental music adds even more emphasis in "Two," where a soft and simple guitar sets up the disconsolate mood and an unexpected trumpet intensifies key moments.
Hospice begins with the song, "Kettering," which takes place as the worker looks back on his first time meeting his loved one and thinks of how oblivious he was to what their relationship would require, what toll it would take on him as well as from his cancer-ridden lover. From there, the remaining songs illustrate a spectrum of emotions ranging from the patient's suicidal angst in "Sylvia" to her irrational suspicions of an affair in "Atrophy." The album closes with the hauntingly beautiful "Epilogue," in which the narrator is forced to watch his love slip away leading him to the realization that he is alone. He acknowledges that their last days together were hell, but begins to see that the days looming ahead of him without her will be even worse.
Rock operas give songwriters the freedom to explore and stretch their abilities beyond the traditional three-minute song with its repeating chorus and catchy hook. They allow lyricists to become authors and completely flesh out a concept without limitations. On the other side, they provide listeners with the opportunity to finally see a musical character through and to get to know him or her on more than one level — to see them as multifaceted humans beings instead of anonymous hes and shes. To listen to a rock opera is to fully immerse one's self in a story from start to end, a powerful experience that can seemingly only be topped by the process of creating the opera itself.