The Caretaker, Memory Loss and the End of Time
Adrian Mark Lore | Tuesday, October 25, 2016
I walked through the nursing home, its labyrinthine hallways transmitting the scent of freshly-laundered curtains. A gentle piano melody hovered like mist over the linoleum floor that led to the hazy ballroom, where men and women — their recollections the victims of severe deterioration — held hands, quietly moving at pace with the slow music. They danced easily; it was muscle memory. The music was familiar, kept on a scratched record that played throughout the day. None of the silent dancers seemed to mind, or notice, the endlessness of replay.
The first time I visited a nursing home coincided with the first time I listened to The Caretaker, one of Leyland Kirby’s many identities as a musician. The record was “An empty bliss beyond this World,” released in 2011 and as eerie as its title suggests. The collection of ditties from worn vintage records, looped slowly ad absurdum like an old, haunting memory, was a study of dementia through music, of the perceptive distortion that comes with advanced age. The record is chilling and dark, yet illuminating in its philosophical achievement. It is peaceful as its songs’ inconclusive ends describe and come to terms with the cyclical yet fleeting nature of life. In the framework of grief, the music is not denial — but acceptance.
Kirby is a very prolific musician, releasing new music under innumerable different monikers often several times a year. Still, “An empty bliss” was his first major critical success outside of the avant-garde niche. For better or worse, Kirby decided that his most recent record as The Caretaker — “Everywhere at the end of time” — would capitalize on the success of “An empty bliss” by reproducing more of that trademark vintage-ballroom sound. Whether this is good or bad is entirely a matter of whether the listener is keen on encountering more of the same familiar sound. The record clocks in at just over 40 minutes, yet there is hardly an original concept to distinguish “Everywhere” from “An empty bliss.”
In fact, a few of the details that made “An empty bliss” so haunting are absent on Kirby’s latest release. While retaining their nostalgic integrity, Kirby subtly treated many of the tracks on “An empty bliss” with ghostly yawns and chilling distortion, yielding some of the record’s most unsettling cuts. Most poignantly, two tracks — the title track as well as “Mental caverns without Sunshine” — play twice in the album, each rendition only slightly altered. The small yet striking detail was evidence of Kirby’s craftsmanship when producing the record, for it shrewdly highlighted its theme: The tracks repeat just as someone would repeat an uttered phrase after forgetting having said it at all. Track names on “An empty bliss” were in themselves evocative as well, with titles such as “Moments of sufficient lucidity,” “I feel as if I might be Vanishing” and “A relationship with the sublime” — even this detail is missed on “Everywhere.”
Given Kirby’s capacity to create atmosphere over the many dimensions of his artistic output, his announcement that “Everywhere” would be merely the first in a six-part series to span the next three years was cause for excitement. While this first volume is enjoyable and engaging, meritorious in its own right and with traces of Kirby’s eccentric flair, it pales in comparison to its predecessor. Most notably, many of its tracks, while reproducing similar delicate bygones, feel generally untouched and are lacking the tensions that drove “An empty bliss.” In other words, it is comparatively disappointingly straightforward.
Perhaps this is purposeful, and we will encounter further manipulation of sound as the album series progresses through the harrowing course of dementia. Yet it is reasonable to fear that by the latter volumes of the series, the novelty value of the idea will long since have worn off. Kirby captured the experience flawlessly on “An empty bliss,” and for now it is not clear how much six more records of similar ideas can contribute meaningfully to his creative thesis.
Artist: The Caretaker
Album: “Everywhere at the end of time”
Label: History Always Favours The Winners
Favorite Track: “Late afternoon drifting”
If you like: William Basinski, Stars of the Lid, Brian Eno
Rating: 3 / 5 Shamrocks