In the psychological thriller Black Swan, protagonist Nina begins being haunted by a doppelgänger as she loses her grip on reality while preparing for the starring role in the ballet Swan Lake. The encounters start out merely as unsettling, such as when Nina passes “herself” on the sidewalk. But one night, while Nina’s lying submerged in a bath with her eyes closed, she opens her eyes underwater to find blood dripping on the water’s surface and the evil-twin-like figure bending over her, grinning diabolically. Nina becomes increasingly paranoid, but as the story continues, it’s apparent that her bloodthirsty double is merely a projection of her own inner darkness.
Vocalist/guitarist Peter Silberman explores a similar narrative on The Antlers’ fifth full-length album, Familiars, released in June. With chilling lyrical imagery and a beautiful but sepulchral instrumental atmosphere, Silberman weaves a ghostly tale that is a more literal telling of his recent period of intensive soul-searching, when he gazed unflinchingly into the eyes of his own dark side.
While Silberman was writing Familiars alongside the other members of the Brooklyn-based ambient indie-rock band—multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner—“I was experiencing a lot of change,” he says. “It was kind of a waking-up period and a sort of reflective period where I was looking back at the past.” After taking hard looks at his career, significant relationships and “my place in the world and my place in my own life” and deciding how he wanted to proceed, he says, “the conclusion I came to was that I wanted to revise the way that I went about my life. And it’s a subtle art revising the way that you live.”
During this emotional process, Silberman discovered his shadow side by “accident,” as a result of being honest with himself about his past self and present state of being—even the parts that were “disturbing,” he says. But instead of re-burying that unsavory knowledge as soon as it was uncovered, “I wanted to really almost draw that creature out of myself, like put it on a box or put it in a shape so I could really identify it and really maybe confront it as opposed to letting it lay hidden in myself,” he says.
Even Familiars’ album art speaks to this idea. Two figures stand facing each other, embracing, with their heads bent. But the way their bodies line up makes it appear that they share the same head. The image aptly represents what Silberman describes as looking at “that difference between your present self and your past self, as if they were two separate people,” while still recognizing they’re two parts of one whole.
As the story of the two selves begins in Familiars, the main character is being stalked by his dark double. On “Doppelgänger”—as a lone trumpet creates the nighttime setting in which the pursuit is unfolding—Silberman’s powerful falsetto quiets to nearly a whisper as he describes the events in menacing terms: “If you’re quiet, you can hear the monster breathing/ Do you hear the gentle tapping?/ My ugly creature’s freezing.”
But as Familiars wends on—with textured compositions that slyly pull the listener into slowly spiraling whirlpools of watery synths and twinkling piano—the light and dark sides begin to overlap. “Part of what this record was about for me was … recognizing that it’s sort of erroneous to polarize yourself like that,” Silberman says. “On the one hand, to really get to know your darker side is really important. But it’s easy to disassociate from them, too, to say, ‘That aspect of my personality isn’t me, only the good parts are me.’ ” The album, he continues, describes the realization that “it’s all a part of you, and the things in you that seem the most unlike you are part of the whole fabric of your personality, and you can’t ever destroy them. You can’t ignore them. You have to learn to make friends with them.”
By the album’s fifth track, “Director,” that unification of the two entities culminates when “you realize that this thing that’s been chasing you is the means by which you kind of confront your own dark shit,” Silberman says. “And that it’s ultimately those difficulties in life, those challenges, are really the way that you grow. … You shouldn’t run away from them, you shouldn’t fear them; you should face them head on and embrace them.”
Having darker aspects to your personality that you’d rather not see is universal, something everyone deals with, Silberman says, “some more than others.” Most humans come to a point where they must decide to either run away from their true self, or look the doppelgänger in the eye.
In Silberman’s case, when he figuratively turned off the lights and looked into a mirror, he didn’t think of what he saw lurking there in an abstract sense; he gave it claws and teeth.
“I think people struggle with all sorts of demons in their life, and we don’t often think of them as an actual demon,” he says. “But it helped me to think of it that way.”