The music produced by a record of new album by The Caretaker ascending into the sky
Music can surely bring people together. (Illustration by Diana Egan, University of Kentucky)

The Caretaker Is Ambient Music Turned Existential

The 20-year-long music project, which tackles heavy topics like memory loss, has attracted a unique and melancholic following online.

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The music produced by a record of new album by The Caretaker ascending into the sky

The 20-year-long music project, which tackles heavy topics like memory loss, has attracted a unique and melancholic following online.

It took a long string of Google searches before I finally found an adequate word to describe “The Caretaker,” a moniker created by British ambient musician Leyland Kirby. “Kenopsia,” defined as “the forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned,” perfectly encapsulates The Caretaker’s 20 years of haunting and oddly nostalgic soundscapes. These works play with the darker aspects of time, reminding listeners of just how fragile even our most intimate memories truly are, and how easily they decay.

One Bump Away From Nothing

I’m certain that “kenopsia” is a term that Leyland Kirby must be familiar with by now. The name “Caretaker” is a direct reference to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and Kirby drew particular inspiration from the film’s ending sequence, in which the camera floats through an empty ballroom as old 1920’s era big band music echoes about. It’s an eerie scene and the perfect embodiment of kenopsia: a woeful waltz through a space that demands to be occupied – but those demands fall on deaf ears.

The concept of an atmosphere that conveys such intense dread for memories long gone – despite being filled with what is normally very calming music – sparked a whole new interest for Kirby which the creation of The Caretaker allowed him to explore from multiple angles. “I think I’m really fascinated with memory and things going wrong [with it],” Kirby noted in a 2018 interview, remarking in another how intriguing – and terrifying – it is that “we’re only one bump on the head away from entering this dark, disorienting world.”

Because of these fascinations, it should come as no surprise that many of Kirby’s albums, like The Caretaker, address specific disorders that affect memory and the ability (or inability) to comprehend the passage of time. The immersive nature of the ambient genre, in the hands of The Caretaker, provides a unique sensory gateway into these concepts. Observing the differences between each album, their corresponding inspirations and their methods of warping audio, can help listeners empathize with these real-life problems and the weighty existential implications that go along with them.

A Discography of Decay

The Caretaker has an exhaustive collection of tracks within his 20 years of work, and all of them warrant a closer look. While some critics may dismiss The Caretaker’s ambient tracks as little more than chopped up music samples and layers upon layers of noise, there is actually a considerable amount of effort needed to balance out music and distortion, convey a clear thematic message and maintain a level of melody or atmosphere. From his first release 20 years ago to the “death” of The Caretaker moniker in 2019, we can recognize an evolving sense of experimentation with these facets of ambient music and how they can play into deeper notions of mortality, nostalgia and legacy.

Debuting with the 1999 album “Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom,” The Caretaker was already off on a strong thematic sprint. Both in the sounds of the album and through its cover art (an old, washed-out photo of an early 20th century ballroom), the influences from “The Shining” remain prominent. Compared to his later works, The Caretaker’s first album portrays a much more “ghostly” atmosphere with long drones and drawn out, continuously echoing clips from old ballroom records that have slowed to the point where they sound ethereal, but no longer musical.

Featured tracks like “In the dark” play out a much more coherent melody but accompany the traditional instrumentals with unsettling metallic screeches that rise and fall with the rest of the song. Combined with heavily modulated and pitched-down vocals, the song produces an uncanny, almost supernatural sounding tune, as if a listener is walking into a ballroom occupied only by spirits, watching a moment that isn’t supposed to be shared with the material world. The album may not explicitly address a common memory disorder like other works from The Caretaker, but the emphasis on times long gone — and the eerie dissociative feeling of viewing those times from afar — was thoroughly established by its release.

An empty bliss beyond this World,” released in 2011, popularized The Caretaker online and brought sweeping critical acclaim along with it. Ranked as the 14th best ambient album of all time by Pitchfork and sitting at over 3 million views on YouTube, the album accrued a following online that would adopt a distinctly gloomy, reflective attitude in the comments and discussion surrounding The Caretaker and his discography. What makes “An empty bliss” an iconic piece is its articulation of the difficulties that those with Alzheimer’s may have in recalling cherished memories — the work itself was inspired by findings that suggest music can help those afflicted in remembering events more easily.

In this sense, The Caretaker functions as a translator. The confusion that makes Alzheimer’s so difficult to comprehend from an outside perspective is obviously something that, paradoxically, needs to be conveyed in “An empty bliss” to allow listeners to empathize with the most distressing aspects of the disorder. By filtering an abstract concept like “memory” through a sensory lens — in this case, the sounds of old pre-World War II jazz records — The Caretaker makes a “status quo” more distinct through song. When this “status quo” is interrupted, repeated and distorted, it becomes clear how things are going wrong.

I feel as if I might be vanishing,” for instance, abruptly cuts out before its melody can truly conclude. One could easily draw comparisons to the concept of memories abruptly cutting out or conversations suddenly shifting in focus, which are unfortunately both common experiences for Alzheimer’s patients. The name certainly reinforces this idea. “All you are going to want to do is get back there” marks the opening track with an equally foreboding name, as if warning those listening of just how much we take for granted in our daily ability to process the world. Other titles — not unlike samples within the tracks — will repeat throughout the album. Both “Mental caverns without Sunshine” and “An empty bliss beyond this World” title multiple songs in the piece — a meta reinforcement of the cyclical thinking embodied by “An empty bliss.”

A six-album project called “Everywhere at The End of Time,” finished in 2019, builds upon the ideas of “An empty bliss” as it explores the concept of dementia through The Caretaker character, who is afflicted with the disorder and eventually “passes away” at the conclusion of the project’s final album. Each album is referred to as a “Stage” — stages one through three mirror many of the distortions of ballroom music found in “An empty bliss,” progressively becoming harder to recognize as music. Stages four through six, known as the “Post-Awareness Stages,” exceed what was done in The Caretaker’s 2011 album and bring listeners into a hellish world of incoherent drones, scratches and static as any trace of a musical pattern is ripped entirely from The Caretaker. Stage Six, the final stage, is “without description,” a void of white noise.

Alone Together

What is less discussed about The Caretaker is his impact on the internet, and the small community that has formed around his work, especially surrounding “An empty bliss beyond this World” and “Everywhere at the End of Time.” Comment sections of these albums are filled with accounts recalling experiences with loved ones who suffered from memory problems, discussing the meaning of the pieces, or just describing feelings that have arisen because of the music.

“My life has felt very fake recently,” begins one comment, which goes on to illustrate a sense of dissociation and the surreal experiences that come from that feeling. Many of the replies empathize with their statements and discuss in greater detail how to navigate dissociative feelings or share their own experiences with similar obstacles. There’s no shortage of comments simply noting how frightening it is to experience the loss of memory through a tangible medium like music. “[I]t’s like hearing life slowly rotting away while you sit and watch outside the window,” insists another.

What is more uplifting amid the sorrowful analyses of many listeners is the realization that few of these comments are left unanswered. The desolate nature of The Caretaker’s music may hurt, but this mutual discomfort is also what has catalyzed discussion around its themes and, perhaps even more importantly, people’s genuine experiences and feelings.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the internet is seldom a place of unanimous agreement and harmony. The fact that The Caretaker has created something so emotionally impactful and existentially curious that strangers on the web are listening to and empathizing with others’ daily problems and musings, is a testament to the skill of Leyland Kirby’s ability to communicate experiences that transcend words. The nature of Kirby’s work may be melancholic, but its effects on the world have been positive. Perhaps a moment of fear isn’t always a bad thing.

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