There is a long history of art that deals with pain, death, loss, and sadness. The danger in such work, at least to me, is that it can be emotionally manipulative and lead you to think more highly of something than you otherwise might not, if it was about another subject. As the only creatures aware of both our own mortality and the ephemerality of all things, be they love or friendship or an ice cream cone, I think we're preconditioned to want to love art that addresses these topics. They're subjects we're always aware of, even if not consciously, and when art forces us to confront them, we can be overwhelmed and automatically accept them at face value rather than detaching ourselves from our emotions and asking whether we like them because of their subject matter or in spite of it.
Hospice is a conceptual piece about the death of a character's lover from cancer. Not every song follows this theme, with 'Bear' about a couple (possibly the same couple, pre-cancer diagnosis) who glibly decide to have an abortion after an unexpected pregnancy, subsequently driving them apart. The music is appropriately dour for such subjects, with a cold, clinical production style and sound that reminds me of a less atmospheric version of Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, an album that also dealt with hospital scenes, surgery, and love. Hospice ranges from the lengthy electronic introspection of 'Atrophy' (with the devastating line "I'm bound to your bedside/your eulogy singer") to the bright and melodic 'Two', which kind of reminds me of Arcade Fire's Funeral in the way that album met death and loss with huge peaks of emotional release and strong hooks. Electro-Shock Blues by the Eels is another touchstone for Hospice, not so much as a sonic influence as it is a similar conceptual piece about death, loss, and pain.
The huge difference between Electro-Shock Blues and Hospice, at least in my mind, is that the former was based on true experiences that Mark Oliver Everett went through with the deaths of his sister and mother (and likely his father, who died when he was fairly young). By contrast, Hospice is an entirely fictionalized work, at least according to what we know. The question of authenticity is a tricky one in art, and I don't want to imply that creators have to have experienced a story or emotion themselves for it to ring true and be acceptable. I don't question that the members of Antlers have experienced some form of death and loss in their own lives; everyone has. Furthermore, the band doesn't need to have lost a love to cancer for this album to be good. What I do question is whether Hospice is, purposefully or otherwise, emotionally manipulative to listeners. We ascribe certain qualities to art that deals with serious issues, among them somewhat nebulous concepts like "importance." We often automatically assume that "serious" or "important" art is always successful and worthy of accolades. After all, how often do comedies win at the Academy Awards versus those full of drama, violence, and romance? While I do like Hospice, I think it's been overrated due to the deeply personal reactions that people have to it. It's next to impossible to separate our emotional reactions from art, and there are many things from my youth that I probably love more due to feelings I derive from them rather than their inherent quality. But I can still put a critical eye to think and admit that it's more a case of something in me responding to the work rather than some quality inherent in said work.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, the people who are calling Hospice one of the best albums of the year are really saying it's one of their favorite albums of the year. There is a definite distinction here if you give it some thought. Personally, the first few times I listened to this album, I liked it quite a bit, but at the same time, I also didn't quite see what the big deal was. It was only when I started to pay attention to the lyrics and themes running through the album that I began to understand. I suspect that Hospice will be a deeply personal experience for many listeners, but sometimes you have to force yourself to separate your emotional response from your intellectual one. This is a good album, but it's neither one of the best albums of 2009 nor is it one of the best albums that deals with death, illness, and pain.