The End is a tale of two albums, the first lighthearted and twee, the second haunted and dark. It’s like The Caretaker decided to go on a bender before sobering up and returning to his normal pursuits. This all amounts to a great deal of fun, especially for those who love old 78s and the sounds of crackle.
As John Henriksson (Molnbär av John) is the head of the Swedish label Tona Serenad, and the album is released on Japanese label flau, it’s a mild surprise to hear a spoken word introduction in French. Perhaps the nature of the 21st century is to blend influences, the entire world now a melting pot. “The Criminal Sketch” sounds like a luau, following a pod of whales across the Pacific. A 70s influence creeps into “Willow Sketch” in the oohs, the aahs and the languid sax. As one might glean from these titles, many of the tracks are sketches: 19 of the 21 tracks clock in at under three minutes apiece. Along the way, we hear needles moving forward and backward, ballroom piano, sampled vox, theremin, tape rustle and a generous dollop of pop and hiss. As numerous eras are referenced, it’s hard to get a handle on the time frame; suffice it to say that the recording is simultaneously now and not-now.
But just as the project seems ready to tip into the realm of the twee, the sampled voices begin to retreat, leaving the “adults” to play. The second half of the album closes the blinds and shuns the light. From the 11th track forward, the album seems more like a Nicholson nightmare. The jazz tones edge forward, the smiles grow forced, and the album as a whole grows far more alluring. Two six-minute tracks help to gel the mood. Suddenly the room no longer spins, but sets. “I Wish I Could Draw Her Nose n° 2” is especially alluring, ending with the sound of a rusted swing and a four-note orchestral blast. The unexpected turn lends the set a late sense of gravity with a wobbly Technicolor sheen, like the ghost of a TV show beamed into space. Certain tracks even sound like the end, as they seem to sample end credits; “Tralla La n° 3” in particular comes across as a fading screen. By the time “Hokey Baloney n° 1” comes around, the calliope no longer sounds safe.
A more homogenous atmosphere might have helped, but the separation of moods makes for a pair of listening experiences that throw the listener back into an earlier, undesignated time: nostalgia as haunted play. Such mingled emotions find their best expression at Halloween: the treat, yes, but also the trick, each choice valuable in its own way. (Richard Allen)