Leyland James Kirby is one of the more intriguing figures occupying the musical landscape of the past decade. His guises include the Stranger, V/VM, Leyland Kirby and a project to illuminate the relationship between memory and sound: The Caretaker.
My introduction to the Caretaker was Stairway to the Stars, specifically the release on lovely blue vinyl - a true fetishistic object of desire.The music appeared to be hanging in the air at an intersection where the crackle of old 78s met the genteel swing of romantic 1920s dance music. The hummable melodies flickered in the gloom of doom-laden drones combining to suggest passions passed and hopes dashed amid ghostly atmospheres fit for the ballroom of the Overlook Hotel. All the same, it was an enticing world that beckoned to the nostalgia exiled in all of us.
By the time of the 6-CD set Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia the Caretaker’s music switched from peering lovingly at half-forgotten memories to struggling to avoid facing a present worthlessness offering nothing capable of being remembered for long enough to be the subject of longing. The set resembled a glacier: huge, impassive, monolithic, with barely detectable emotional movement, on the surface cold but an essential warning that our optimal well-being depends upon remembered events from the past. It pointed to the need for things by which to navigate loss and love, be they sentimental tunes, shattered glass on the tiled floor of a bar, ghostly photographs of never-known relatives, cave-paintings, trapped wind, a woman’s hair, or sound bleeps hurtling through space picked up on an old ham radio. Arguably, Amnesia took the Caretaker’s drone and doom as far as it would go, albeit well past a dead end. Something would have to give or else the medicine would be worse than the disease.
And so it was that 2008’s Persistent Repetition Of Phases pulled back from the audio abyss, and this new release reinforces that direction. Less brutal, lighter, and more nuanced, with carefully chosen snippets of cornet and piano, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World offers the hopeful science of Alzheimer’s patients who can remember fragments of music and melody long after they forget vast swathes of their personal lives or the wider historical times in which they have existed. Recollections of children and marriages may have disappeared, erased along with wars and moon landings, but a short burst of an old tune brings sparks of recognition. Certain pieces on the album, particularly “All You’re Going to Want to Do Is Get Back There” and “Mental Caverns Without Sunshine” are sublime rather than weird or unnerving. These best tracks have a feeling as sentimental and affecting as the scene in My Favorite Year in which O’Toole dances with a woman on her 40th wedding anniversary after her husband requests he stop by their table. Other tracks are as uncomfortable as being ten years old and required to kiss your grandmother on her overly lipsticked mouth. A wrinkle in time. And as you can see, Kirby remains an expert at detourning phrases and truisms into ominous song titles. Like an all-time winner on a cult quiz show. “I’ll have ambiguous track names for 50 please, Bob”....
Let’s not forget our enthusiasm for some other projects of this one man subterranean cottage industry who is by turns defiant and celebratory. The Colonel’s “Cup my Balls” is (in a Leslie Philips meets Carry On films sense) the funniest football song ever recorded. Meanwhile, V/VM has for years had a Thatcher death song primed for release the day of her snuffing. There was also the time he gave music away on his website every day for a year. I have a feeling that he is relentlessly pursuing the point where the creep of decay meets the will to lust and both are affected. Best of all might be last year’s Leyland Kirby release Eager To Tear Apart The Stars, an evolution in arrangement and composition described as a “masterwork of ambient beauty” which drew favorable comparisons with Basinski, Budd, and Roedelius. Indeed, the worst thing about Kirby is that he is so prolific. The Caretaker already has a new album out this month!