This 20-minute EP from Our Sleeping Giant seems to be a concept album about the strain the narrator’s cancer puts on his relationship, similar in theme to the Antlers’ Hospice, but musically and lyrically the albums have nothing in common. Where Hospice was all buzzing ambience and stream-of-consciousness ambiguity, Hardest Year is full of guitar twang, incongruously uptempo drumming, and just about all of it is as plainspoken as closing number “Pack Your Shit and Leave.”
So it ends on a downer, but maybe not as much of a bummer as its opening scene: “Happy birthday baby, I hope you get all that you want this year/ But no birthday card could brighten up the hardest news I’ve ever had to hear.” That’s a hell of a Hallmark poem, but as Emily Post would suggest, the narrator’s keeping his diagnosis a secret, saving it “for another place and time.” He says he doesn’t want to spoil the party, but he’s also worried about his beloved’s reaction. Maybe the big C will be a relationship killer. If so, no hard feelings; he’ll just go somewhere and die alone: “See I’m not the same without you, I doubt I’d even see another year/ But if this is just too much for you, I’ll just pack my things and disappear.” Frontman Danny Gibbons relates all this in a strangely hopeful voice — earnest and clean-cut, like a contemporary-Christian-rock singer.
On “Down for the Count” Gibbons is still playing perfect boyfriend/martyr, but he now he sounds like he means it. “I could wait forever if it’s by your side,” he says before he throws in the towel, “but I give up, I quit, and she wins.” The song’s considerable appeal lies in the simple acoustic riff backing Gibbons and his dejected delivery of that white-flag refrain. “Reflections From a Hospital Bed,” in contrast, sounds unbelievably upbeat, with a mischievous electric guitar snaking between danceable drums, though the narrator finds himself: “Faced with my mortality at the age of just 16/ a feat I wouldn’t ask of my worst enemy.” The title track is the highlight here, making an unlikely match of Gibbons’s emotive, reflective, ultimately optimistic vocals with some outstanding gated-reverb drum work from Daniel Proud, which manages to propel the song without ever hijacking it. — Jeremy Martin