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The Lead Review

The Echoes Of Anxiety: The Caretaker's Final Chapter
The Quietus , March 14th, 2019 09:53

With Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 6, The Caretaker brings to a close a twenty-year project with a double album of heartbreaking, elegiac music, finds Maybury

The world that we find ourselves living in is so strange. There is a reason why The Caretaker has resonated, has survived for two decades. We are in a sea of memories now. Our own and other peoples. On a daily basis. Second by second we offer up everything that happens to us on platforms that use algorithms to decide what other instantaneous memories we want to see. We get offered our own records back to us as memories for further redistribution. Our behaviour on the global digital stage is causing us to entirely recalibrate what the concept of memory actually is. We are providing content as memory before the event that leads to the potential formation of a memory is even complete. Is that memory mine? Is it yours? Is it even anybody’s? How can you forget what you never even remembered to begin with?

Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 6 is the final work by The Caretaker, the culmination of what has become a twenty-year project. So we face it from a unique vantage point. And whilst there are some vaguely comparable antecedents (Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, and most appropriately John Oswald’s Grayfolded), really there is no musical precedent for what is presented here. This may be four sides of vinyl, compact disc, and download, but attempting to grapple with what is at play here is futile if we view this as an album in any conventional sense. It is not conventional in the slightest.

Beginning in 1999, James Kirby released a trio of albums as The Caretaker that plundered 1920s and 30s ballroom pop, digitally dosing them in echo, reverb, and other effects to become potential playlists for Stanley Kubrick’s imagining of The Overlook Hotel in his film, The Shining. But the processes utilised by Kirby had the very peculiar effect of creating a distance between listener and artefact such that it was as if you were listening to your own emotional response to the songs, rather than the thing in itself.

Retaining this big band pop as its source material, The Caretaker, then underwent a subtle shift and found its true subject: memory, its slippages, disorders, and diseases. Persistent repetition of phrases, in 2008, used locked grooves and loops to explore the emotional effect of fading recollection in old age. The earlier monolithic six disc set Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia, smudged all the dynamics from The Caretaker sound presenting seventy-two ‘memories’ without title (and on the CD version, discs without numbers throwing the whole idea of a fixed sequence out of the window).

After gaining wider recognition for An empty bliss beyond this world and the soundtrack to Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) film essay, Kirby announced in 2016 that he had decided to diagnose The Caretaker with “early onset dementia”. This final project, Everywhere at the end of time was to be delivered in six stages across two years, intending to “reveal new points of progression, loss and disintegration. Progressively falling further and further towards the abyss of complete memory loss and nothingness.”

Reviewing Stage 1 for Pitchfork, Brian Howe raised the – not unjustifiable – concern that diagnosing a musical alter ego with Alzheimer’s could be deemed a little unseemly, especially given the “jaunty” nature of the sounds found in the first part of the project. And certainly, over the first three stages, the original Caretaker sound sort-of reappeared. Different versions of original songs sat alongside newly-processed cuts of previous pieces. Given the progression of the project up to this point, it was an odd and slightly unsettling experience. The initial bounce soon collapsed into unsettling looped dead-ends and repetitions, with some songs returning over and over again – often on the same side of vinyl. We had become like Rachael, the replicant unaware of her own artificial nature in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, with Kirby our Eldon Tyrell, leading us toward emotional reactions to the return of memories that he had previously planted.

After the publication of Stage 3, Kirby revealed in an interview that he was working towards attempting to create “a kind of listenable chaos”. This is what was presented in the fourth and fifth stages: a queasy glitching overload of past fragments and details refusing to coalesce into a recognisable form. You hear twenty years of an established sonic identity collapse around your ears and it is as powerful and mesmerising as it is distressing.

And like all of Kirby’s work as The Caretaker, it is absolutely fucking devastating. For all the talk of process and concept, The Caretaker has been responsible for some of the most powerful, unsettling, heart-breaking – and sometimes strangely comforting – music of this century.

Here then is Stage 6.

Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 6 sounds like being lost, like lostness as a permanent state of crisis. This is probably the weirdest ambient music I have ever heard. Barely present whilst eerily enveloping. First suite, ‘A confusion so thick you keep forgetting’ is a billowing fog of noise and raining hiss. The production is vast, cavernous and upsetting. It is a howling nothing eschewing any sense of momentum despite the endlessly mutating apparitions looming out of the fog. On this first side there is not a trace of The Caretaker’s established sound.

Following this, ‘A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat’ further enhances the wholly peculiar and paradoxical nature of what you’re hearing. It is panic ambience, a manic unspooling of sound and noise with just the briefest flash of what could be a melody or an instrument then gone before your mind’s ear can grasp it. If Stages 4 and 5 were overtly anxious, at least the clarity of the fragments offered discernibly recognisable sounds. Even that luxury is not afforded you here – these are like echoes of anxiety.

Having lived with The Caretaker, if you know this music, you find yourself attempting to fill in the blanks based on your past experiences. It gives you the barest hint of something, just so that you know what it should sound like, whilst not giving you enough to complete the picture.

Stage 6 is heart-breaking, distressing, overwhelming. Once immersed you genuinely feel lost. It’s impossible to understand what is happening around you. It is confusing, overwhelming. You feel isolated. You might ask yourself why you would put yourself through such an experience but then isn’t that the power of all great art anyway – to experience and to feel unknown emotions, states, and perspectives? It’s not an easy journey but you feel different for undertaking it.

In the final suite, ‘Place in the world fades away’, the enervating fog that has lurked throughout the previous sides is still present but a sustained organ drone is perceptible. It feels like something is trying to break through. Fifteen minutes in, abruptly, something does. Startlingly. With stronger clarity than any other sound so far throughout the project. You hear a classical choral piece from what sounds like the most impossibly degraded piece of vinyl. Shocking at first, barren, elegiac, but crushingly sad, hopeless, final.

This could have been a moment of redemption, letting us off the hook, easing the trauma. But with that battered source material – it’s not ‘right’. It’s not romantic and it’s not idealised. It is simply forlorn.

As it plays out to the climax, something else materialises with such ferocious force it’s deafening. One minute, cut into the climactic grooves of the eighteenth disc of Everywhere at the end of time, bringing to an end what must be one of the strangest sound art serials of this whole weird, disorientating century:

Silence.

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