i’m all too aware of the profound irony in what i’m about to write. The final stage in Leyland Kirby’s epic six-part cycle exploring dementia, Everywhere at the end of time, has literally – this very minute – just been released. Whether it will bring to a close not just that individual cycle but also Kirby’s 20-year project under the moniker The Caretaker remains to be seen, but either way, significant endings inevitably invite the desire for some sort of retrospective. Like the biblical tale of Lot’s wife’s fatal backward glance at the city she’d been instructed to leave (Genesis 19), Dante the Pilgrim’s looking back at earth through the celestial spheres before his final ascent into paradise (The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, Canto XXII), or Truman Burbank’s last survey of his fictional world before departing it forever (The Truman Show), there’s an impulse in, i suspect, all of us to take stock and appraise the full scale of something as it reaches its culmination. Except of course, in the case of Everywhere at the end of time, it’s ironic to do this since the essence of its entire trajectory runs counter to the very possibility of being able to look back, as memory and awareness become ever more dulled, deadened and destroyed. So for the last few weeks, as i’ve been contemplating Stage 6 and how we got here through the preceding five stages, and indeed Kirby’s entire oeuvre as The Caretaker, i could hardly be more conscious of how privileged, fortunate and grateful i am to be able to do just that.
The downward spiral of deterioration running through Everywhere at the end of time has been shaped by a number of factors, each of which has gradually encroached more and more oppressively on the exquisite fragments of ballroom music that are the source of all its material (Kirby’s decision to use this music is perfect, both for its ability to evoke a distant past as well as for its combination of elegance, sophistication and, above all, happiness). The first is its dependence, in the first three stages, on repeating loops of music, affording mere windows into something much bigger and grander (what i’ve previously described as “like trying to preserve a story in a single sentence”). Even at the outset of Stage 1, all was very far from well. Thereafter, those fragile loops are subjected to further factors, whereby the music is in different ways slowed down and filtered (greatly robbing it of its higher frequencies), and heard from within increasing quantities of reverb and surface noise, exacerbated further as drop-outs start to occur, the fractures and rifts they cause sounding enormous when emphasised by the reverb.
Where the first half of the cycle, Stages 1 to 3, is preoccupied by these factors, the second half (of which Stages 4 and 5 were my combined best album of 2018) is abruptly transfigured. Traces of the material are hard to make out within an increasingly homogenised soup that Kirby no longer presents in neat three- or four-minute morsels (a tribute to the music’s origins as songs) but as arbitrarily-proportioned 20-minute slabs. The cycle thereby proceeds from mere forgetfulness to a more terrifying blank oblivion, surrounding us with a maelstrom of impenetrable sonic matter, a jostling clatter of allusive elements in which, somehow, infinitesimal moments of dim clarity implausibly emerge. Which brings us to the end.
Where Stages 4 and 5 were impenetrable, Stage 6 is unfathomable. In purely superficial terms, though, it’s no longer a place of overt horror, instead resembling an apocalyptic landscape of abject erosion. What remains: rumble, crackle, hiss, like some amalgam of the movement of wind, sand and sea; what it began life as is impossible to tell. The surface noise has by now gone beyond mere crackle to become irrevocably cracked, deeply-etched ravines of damage scouring the landscape. What also remains is resonance, vestiges of ideas strenuously dredging their way from boundless depths to emerge as muffled yet reverberant echoes of something once tangible. Against all probability, they retain enough to preserve their essential identity, enough for us to recognise or at least infer with infinite sadness a glimmer of their ancient glory. It’s hard not to hear these remnants as courageous acts of defiance in extremis. But their world has become wiped, and one of the most disturbing parts of Stage 6 – heard in the third track, ‘Long decline is over’ – is the way that everything reduces to a kind of ‘open’ passive background hiss, gently struck by the most dull impacts, solitary motes of memory glancing against an endless surface of vacant noise.
Everything eventually ends, and this trajectory only ever had one possible outcome. The way Leyland Kirby brings his Everywhere at the end of time cycle to an end is genuinely one of the most stunningly beautiful and deeply moving musical experiences i’ve ever known. How one hears the final track, ‘Place in the World fades away’ – particularly its unexpected closing few minutes, in which we hear a kind of music we’ve never heard before in any of the work’s six stages – depends on your outlook and sensibilities, but for me it’s a defeat, a consummation and sheer transcendence. The minute’s silence at the very end isn’t nearly enough to begin to take in the enormity of the six and a half hours that preceded it.
Returning to Dante, to whom i referred at the start, the apex of his journey into paradise concludes with words breaking down in the face of the overwhelming power and magnitude that confront him. i think i know something of how he must have felt: Everywhere at the end of time ultimately goes far, far beyond what words – or, at least, my words – can adequately convey. It is simply incredible.
The entire Everywhere at the end of time cycle is available as a digital download for just £5 from the Caretaker Bandcamp site; CD and vinyl editions of the various stages can be obtained from Boomkat.