This new LP is the first in a six-album series from ambient artist James Leyland Kirby. It’s an extreme continuation of the concept—memory loss—that guided his 2011 masterpiece, An Empty Bliss...
“Things that are beautiful and transient”—
Ambient music has a habit of all running together, but on 2011’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, James Leyland Kirby devised a series of ways to stand out. He invoked the purgatorial ballroom of The Shining with his project’s name, the Caretaker; layered it with Alzheimer’s studies; and spun it through loopy, languid edits of Jazz Age 78s. The results were soothing to the ear, lucid to the imagination, and rich with historical feeling, all unified in a meditation on degradation, memory, and time. There was also an implied provocation in Kirby’s sweet, almost jaunty treatment of losing one’s mind. Ambient masterpieces like Empty Bliss often cause me to think, “I’d take six more albums of that.” But in the event, I’m not as sure.
Everywhere at the End of Time has been planned as a six-stage release. The first three will come out as downloads and LPs between now and next year, when they will also be compiled in a CD set; the last three follow the same pattern from March 2018 to 2019. The premise is that the Caretaker, one of Kirby’s long-running aliases, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. The music will chart the patient’s decline, ending in the alter ego’s “death.” Memory, incarnated as resurfacing bits of music from throughout the Caretaker’s oeuvre, will progressively smear and recombine.
In short, it’s an extreme continuation of what Kirby did on Empty Bliss, his most popular release to date: lingering on the precipice where pleasant reverie slips into the abyss. As on that album, pitches laze, overtones huff and puff, lines elongate, surface noise crackles, and scratches slash out a rhythmic rain. But mainly, the loops just play, stuck somewhere between dreamlike and deathly, until suddenly, ominously, they stop. Roaring Twenties horns turn from saucy to sloe-eyed, poky and dopey, as if a heavily opiated combo kept losing its place in a Gershwin tune.
“Here we experience the first signs of memory loss,” Kirby writes in liner notes. “This stage is most like a beautiful daydream. The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days.” But we begin to hear more severe signs of breakdown around halfway through it. On “Slightly Bewildered,” the instrumentation becomes an almost toneless mooing, the loop wrapping around with a stagger. “Things That Are Beautiful and Transient” is inside-out, the melody an inner voice, its harmonic field the foreground. A winning gentleness pervades later tracks like “An Autumnal Equinox” and “The Loves of My Entire Life,” but by the end, even gentleness has taken on a desperate tinge, as though if the dancing stops, everyone dies.
It’s a testament to Kirby’s cunning composition that it sounds like he’s playing long stretches of the source material intact, when in fact, he is drastically altering tiny snippets and composing them into smeared but credible pieces. He mulches and reconstitutes an era, but he is not very interested in historical footnotes. He’ll talk a lot about process and concept, but you have to turn to Who Sampled to tell you that, say, the title track of Empty Bliss is derived from Layton and Johnstone’s 1929 recording of “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.” As Kirby goes all in on this coup de grâce, one can’t help but notice that he’s using other people’s music to channel the subjectivity of other people’s medical condition, and wonder where that gets us.
Empty Bliss rested on studies of Alzheimer’s patients and music, which seemed to keep a respectful distance from real, specific suffering. But there is something a little unseemly about Kirby “giving the project dementia” and reveling in it across hours of pleasurable music, especially after he announced it in such a confusing way that he had to clarify that he himself had not been diagnosed with dementia. If not exploitative, it’s at least an unduly romantic view of an illness. We like to dabble in madness through music, in the abstract. But an actual disease? Why should we want to experience dementia by proxy, aesthetically, or think we even can? I watched my grandmother succumb to it for a decade before she died, and it was very little like a “beautiful daydream.” In fact, there was nothing aesthetic about it.