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Where are they now? Where aren’t they yet? Catching up with Leyland Kirby

| Friday, November 17, 2017

Dominique DeMoe

It’s not possible to write about the mercurial Leyland Kirby today without discussing his output as The Caretaker, nor is it possible to discuss The Caretaker without first bringing up “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World.” If you were anywhere online in 2011 — on a music forum or news website, at least — it’s quite likely you saw a reproduction of that iconic primitivist still life of a rock on a pedestal “holding” a match. You know, the art for the record of gritty big-band and ballroom tunes, slowed down and looped ad nauseam.

Kirby’s been composing music since the late ‘90s, but “An Empty Bliss” is likely his masterpiece. Sure, “slow it down and loop it” has become this decade’s “needs more cowbell,” but the record’s contemplation of memory loss, mental illness and senility was no gimmick.

In fact, Kirby has been quite busy over the past several years perfecting his artistic statement — finishing what he began, so to speak. To be sure, “An Empty Bliss” stands alone as a complete work; but Kirby has nonetheless endeavored to produce a six-part opus — “Everywhere at the End of Time” — that tracks the progress of dementia more meticulously than his past work. The first part was released precisely a year ago, and part two saw its release earlier this year.

With the release of the collection’s third part, this half of the year alone has seen some hectic activity from an artist formerly known for his privacy and solitude. Unsurprisingly, the prolific musician — who also produces under the monikers The Stranger and V/Vm — has been hard at work. Kirby himself commented, “I’ve had to ignore e-mail for some months due to the workload of current projects I’m doing here,” not to mention he was “moving house and studio.”

Despite these obstacles, in addition to the latest offering from “End of Time,” Kirby has just released a 90-minute pay-what-you-want album of melancholic, orchestral electronics, titled “We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives.” The cyclical, reverb-swollen downtempo rhythms are a hard shift from the crispy, vintage-vinyl aesthetic and gloomy thematic focus of Kirby’s work as The Caretaker, but given his recently myopic focus on these concepts, “We, so tired” is a refreshing release from a musician talented across diverse styles.

That’s not to say Kirby has tired out his ideas, or that the remaining three entries of “End of Time” are not motive for excitement — though I did fear that once. In fact, Kirby reached out to me after I gave the project’s first entry a lukewarm review last year, letting me know the completed work will be greater than the sum of its parts. I was skeptical of his claim at first, but he was right: As the progress of dementia intensifies with each new entry, that familiarly haunting ballroom aesthetic has become increasingly oblique, poignant and affecting.

Indeed, one can’t help feel touched — perhaps even demoralized — because The Caretaker’s discography powerfully evokes the phenomenological experience of an actual medical affliction with which well over three million elderly folks are diagnosed yearly in the United States alone — Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, though Kirby’s music has creatively inspired countless artists already, the clinical focus of “An Empty Bliss” and particularly “End of Time” has motivated over 90 musicians to put their talents to practical use fundraising for the cause.

Led by Nmesh, a vaporwave producer, they’ve assembled a six-hour tribute album of 100 songs titled “Memories Overlooked: A Tribute to the Caretaker” — all proceeds of which will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

It’s a hopeful denouement to criticisms leveled at Kirby for capitalizing on illness for the sake of his musical aesthetic. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite — the music is giving back.

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