After two decades, it’s time for us to take inventory. Leyland Kirby’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom was released in 1999, the concluding chapter of Everywhere at the end of time in 2019. Over the past twenty years, The Caretaker has carved a niche in the music industry like a needle working its way through a lathe cut. Today, he owns the haunted ballroom genre like Bob Marley owns reggae; if a fan knows only one person in the genre, it’s Kirby.
2019 has been a big year for concluding chapters. As shown by reactions to Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones, the jury remains out until the final installment appears. The six-part, three-year project Everywhere at the end of time finally wrapped this spring, and a case can be made that every installment improves on the one before. It’s also clear that each chapter sheds light on its predecessors while exposing the raw nerves of dementia, tenderly yet firmly. There is no escape from this disease. To view it through the lens of music was a bold choice. Kirby has made a career of it, deepening our understanding of his approach to the extent that he comes across as a scientist, dissecting the disease through sound.
In the movie The Shining (1980),the haunted ballroom conjures detached sympathy, but the science is sublimated to horror. Kirby is now closer to Oliver Sachs, whose Awakenings (1973) underlines the connection between music and memory. As Stage 6 winds down, one thinks of the patients fading away again, synapses clogging. An even earlier reference can be made to Flowers for Algernon (1958), the Daniel Keyes short story that continues to break hearts today. Revisiting “scenes” from earlier chapters, Kirby mimics the repetitions, warpings and garblings of the human mind. Nothing is as clear as it once was. The path home has been lost, the breadcrumbs eaten by impartial birds. Now there are silences, gaps, substitutions. Even the rare moments of lucidity have been gobbled. A choir, an organ, a vinyl crackle portray a loss deeper than words, for in the end, even language has disappeared. The partner has been replaced by the memory of a partner, the dancing by the memory of dancing.
Another amazing thing about The Caretaker: he’s done this twice. Back in 2006, he released an epic 72-track album called Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia, a collection of abraded “memories” that set the stage for the current work by proving that Kirby was capable of producing a sustained project and following it through to the end. Also worth noting: the 50-track Everywhere at the end of time, while available in two physical sets (9 LPs or 7 CDs) is also still available to download, in its entirety, for five pounds, while the musical section of the coda is free ~ yes, free ~ until June 16. Such generosity is over and above what anyone might expect.
everywhere, an empty bliss combines the title of the latest opus with that of an earlier project, An empty bliss beyond this world. Imagine HBO revealing that us they did have one more episode of Game of Thrones and then airing it for free, with no subscription necessary. The album is accompanied by one last quote from The Shining, a wink from the artist. This may also be his last work, although the phrasing is ambiguous: “a surprise golden farewell … one last chance to raise a charged glass for those we lost along the way, for all the works, for those ghosts from our past, for our uncertain future and for The Caretaker.”
These archival tracks accompany an exhibition of work from Ivan Seal, also running through June 16. Seal’s art has been integral to The Caretaker’s presentation from the start, gracing album covers and offering a visual corollary to the music. His sculptures and paintings suggest tree rings, human silhouettes, in one instance a melted horse. There is beauty in this destruction that would not have been apparent had these subjects remained whole. The 162-page book (in French and English) offers the opportunity to stare at Seal’s work like one stares at clouds, until one sees figures that may or may not be there. Mysterious and fantastic, this art ranks among the best of the current era, and the fact that Kirby honors Seal in this fashion is yet another reflection of his collaborative spirit.
As for the music, one might regard the album as an alternate “greatest hits,” only Track One topping three minutes. It’s a way to look back on Kirby’s work in miniature, a sharp contrast to the 20-minute tracks of Stages 4-6. Mimicking the longer project, the opening pieces are as legible as well-loved 78s, while the later tracks delve into disruption ~ but not dissolution. The sadness starts to seep in as early as track four (“Losing battle of loss”), and once again is unstoppable. Hope as one might, there was never going to be a different ending. This being said, there’s respite to be heard in the music box tones of “All eyes bewildered,” one of the prettiest songs Kirby has written, a gift to those seeking a bit of sunlight. But after the elegiac “Losing loss of battle,” a twin to the earlier track, “Plaque advanced despair” struggles to puncture, and in the next piece, words grow as garbled as a broken intercom.
After all this, there are still a few takeaways to be had, even from an artist whose releases have been known to lack liner notes ~ or even his own name. For twenty years, Kirby has been raising awareness of dementia by osmosis, treating the disease with rare attention and empathy. His oeuvre offers dignity to those suffering from the disease, as well as encouragement to caregivers. Again and again, he has honored those who are losing their minds. Together, Everywhere at the end of time and everywhere an empty bliss are a definitive statement as powerful as Sachs’ original analysis. The music is a reminder to treasure moments of clarity, never knowing when they may be the last. By extension, we are led to cherish fleeting pleasures, no matter what our state of health, embracing our fragility. As this phase of The Caretaker’s output draws to a close, we remember the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, whose awareness of finality brought him to a state of appreciation for even the smallest of blessings. (Richard Allen)