“May the ballroom remain eternal…”
The Caretaker was one of several monikered projects by UK artist Leyland James Kirby. If we take him at his word, it ended in 2019 with the release of the final stage of his masterpiece Everywhere At The End Of Time—a remarkable collection of music which sutures us into the degenerative process of dementia.
Twenty years ago, The Caretaker began as a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically the scenes in the Gold Room in which we hear the haunting, crackly melodies of old-time ballroom crooners like Al Bowlly and the Ray Noble Orchestra. In 1999, Kirby released Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom, an unnerving debut in which, for the most part, ballroom samples were slowed down and treated with reverb and crepitational textures. It ushered in a hauntological new mode of experimental music in the 2000s, marked by the likes of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, Burial’s first two albums, and the writings of theorists like Mark Fisher.
Since then, The Caretaker’s work has been marked by memory, or memory disorders, as his primary theme. In 2011, with An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Kirby made his first direct foray into exploring Alzheimer’s disease using the ‘haunted ballroom’ collections, fixated on the decay of music itself as an analogue for the deterioration of the mind.
But as if sensing that time itself was the key in expressing the gradual process of this decline, Everywhere At The End Of Time represents the pinnacle of this concept: a 6.5 hour odyssey across his aesthetic goals as an artist, as well as the completion of an empathetic outpouring.
Beginning with Stages 1-2, the ballroom selections begin, a retread perhaps of what The Caretaker was attempting with An Empty Bliss. As a first experience with his music, it’s uncanny. It’s like the crackle is more prominent than it should be, and some piano ballads are less formal than the genre would suggest, more impressionistic even. In the sleeve notes for a previous album, Mark Fisher writes:
“It is that grave-damp, mildewed odour which the perfume and the preservative never quite covered up which has always made The Caretaker’s music uneasy, rather than easy, listening” (Ghosts of My Life, 110)
Take the opening track from Stage 1: Al Bowlly’s ‘Heartaches’ (billed here as ‘It’s Just a Burning Memory’). This is not ‘Heartaches’ as it was, but as it might be remembered under the needle’s soft hiss. A backdrop for words you might have said or things you might have done—a burning memory. A song staining itself in your brain, unknowingly plaquing your synaptic canals with each echoed croon, slowly anticipating a phase where it will render into minor fragments which may only crop up as a trace, or glimpse, of itself later on.
Upon finishing Stage 2, in which signs of deterioration slowly become apparent over songs you’ve already heard (but you’re not quite sure, or won’t admit it), I described it to a friend as that eerie, indescribable feeling you get while standing on the grounds of an abandoned house. You imagine and remember the voices and the bodies that populated these rooms—their blissful joy. And you imagine what might have led to this ruin, and what caused people to leave so suddenly, and the things they might have left hidden behind. But instead of a house, this place is your mind.
In Stage 3, as the decline edges towards the post-awareness stage, songs muffle more and more—string sections loop and deter into a chilling reverb that resembles fading voices, and clarinets squeeze out lonely diseased reveries like they need help (‘I still feel like myself’). False starts have begun to occur before they’re abandoned entirely (‘Hidden Sea Buried Deep’), cascades of missing beats stream out, and frequencies resound like oppressive weights in the head. The music is now overtly in pain, it’s aching. And when songs cut out suddenly, I am filled with an indescribable longing and something heavy is weighing on me—as the patient, I am now accepting that something is terribly wrong.
Crucially, while the idea of sudden cutoffs may sound like a neat trick, one of the simpler conceits to evoke memory failing, the experience is actually far more than functional. Listening to it in the night, having been lulled by the languid swoons of the ballroom orchestra, these dis-temperate cuts initiate a process which will recur in the next stages. As song samples become distorted and more fleeting, my yearning is suddenly for their return, which may or may not happen. These songs are the keys to everything I’ve ever loved and learned, like the photo album you’d save in a fire… I can’t bear to lose them in the fog.
With the ending of Stage 3, the music has now completely ghosted itself, and we enter the Post-Awareness Stages 4-5. As pain and confusion settle in, the music becomes a jittery, chaotic mash, while the song titles now bear clinical designations, like ‘Post Awareness Confusions’, ‘Advanced Plaque Entanglements’, and ‘Synapse Retrogenesis’.
These stages unfold and regress unto a multifoliate void, accreting itself as a mass in the head; that oppressive weight we started feeling in Stage 3 has now passed an irrevocable event horizon. What The Caretaker makes palpable to the listener is the loss of control of the patient: not only is there too much happening all at once, but there is hardly an anchor point to keep us grounded.
Fragments are rubbling in like pixels, and submerged, lazed-out melodies drone away in another room, from which we are occluded by a thick wall. On a track like ‘Temporary Bliss State’, you can just about make out the effort at a consistent melody you think you’ve heard before—it’s too warbled to know for sure. Fisher writes:
“Even if you listen over and over to all the songs you still can’t [know] when these melodies will come in. You have no favourite tracks, it’s like a dream you are trying to remember” (Ghosts of My Life, 112)
If our brains function like organic data processors, this is the ambience of a chronic glitch, the wiring all screwy and clogged—the sounds of traffic in a timelapse.
Finally, Stage 6 marks the totality of the patient’s decline. After the Pendereckian mental threnodies of the previous couple stages, a numbing void envelops us and it’s terrifying to consider how far the regression has come. Small crepitations persist over the humming abyss, and underneath we can hear sandpaper sweeps, like someone brooming away the ashes of a former life. The record-player crackle foregrounded more than ever—emptiness prevails (‘Long decline is over’).
But, in these last sections, something beyond, even transcendent, is shaping itself in the music. Not since Wish You Were Here, is the existential perspective and the evocation of madness so singularly evoked through music. With nothing left to clear in the abyss, an ambient organ drone hovers in, as if our pain is lifting towards a kind of terminal lucidity—one last reprieve—as we float away from the mass.
And then, the needle has nothing left to produce, and a new record is put on; voices are somewhere in the hallway, and a resounding chorale emerges. It’s a double-edged sample upon inspection: both a manipulated excerpt from Bach’s ‘St. Luke Passion’, but also a track entitled ‘Friends Past Reunited’ from The Caretaker’s first album—a pointed bookend to this twenty-year project.
It is a beauty that wrenches and strains itself out of the abyss, angelic voices and a piano blowing out the mikes, but never to an unlistenable level. It’s another aching swansong but, unlike the opening track from Stage 1, its elegy resolves itself in major progressions, sustained chords and breve notes lulling us into some kind of a certitude—the end of a long decline, crackly but clean, somewhere out there in the beyond (‘Place in the World Fades Away’). End.
What I find remarkable about the music is the lack of dramatic mood cues throughout the piece. This curation of dementia is not achieved by minor key changes omening the start of decline. The reason its gradual descent is so poignant is precisely down to the involvement it requests of us. In Stage 3, what we come to fear is what we ourselves have managed to notice, not purely what the music has shown us.
Interestingly, with its initial beginnings as a creepypasta point of intrigue for non-experimental music listeners, the album has developed into a phenomenon online. On the one hand, it is encouraging to see young users engaging with material that asks quite a lot from them, while also (inevitably) contending with the problems of our elders, and of old age generally. Problems which seem to so often be cast aside in a culture so firmly at the helms of the young. On the other, this has also consisted of empty reaction porn across YouTube and TikTok, with viewers marketing their emotional journey listening to it, and a residing positivity usually expressed as something like, “this is a great way to raise awareness about dementia and its sufferers”.
A deeper language must be found to describe such a remarkable piece of work and the achievement of its goal. Its empathy machine is characterised not by words—anyone can write or say they understand someone’s pain. And awareness still implies distance. But to feel something is the truth of one’s understanding and, as The Caretaker must realise, a transcendent, wordless experience. This is why he compresses the final track so much—so that any of the chorale’s lyrical shapes are lost in the haze: the melody is the meaning.
As a concluding word on the album, on how it conceives of dementia through its construction, The Caretaker, in his final moments, has reinstated the feeling of loss. To thinkers like Fisher, our age is a haunted one, in which loss itself is no longer a palpable facet in the cultural consciousness of the digital age (Ghosts of My Life, 2). With instant reproducibility and the digital recall of information, it can often feel like we are extricating ourselves from things which might linger for longer than we’d like.
We conceive of memories, and of life, as information units, rather than as living things within our heads. Things get deleted with almost no trace, and it’s almost like we’re giving ourselves dementia in a way. But, in this regard, the great paradox of The Caretaker’s body of work rests in his marrying of the earliest form of musical reproduction (the vinyl record) with the most contemporary modes of digital recall and manipulation.
Instead of creating a disconnect or a clash, he has reconstituted an organic quality to music and bridged a weave of intergenerational memories and tonalities. Here, music is no longer an encoded, saturated plane of ones and zeroes. Rather, it is a living, breathing fabric of visceral emotional depth. May it live forever in our heads.