Review Summary: Everything is on the point of decline
There is a scene in The Pianist where Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist in hiding during World War II, is caught by a German officer. In the swollen tapestry of a run-down slum consists a piano, and soon after Szpilman is caught, he's asked by the officer to play a piece on it. It's an engrossing, utterly haunting piece, and every time I put on The Caretaker's music, I'm echoed of its memory. Szpilman's condition is devastating and his ballad is somber, yet there's a ghostly beauty to it all; a man on his last leg, with all circumstance against him, releasing such elegance through the keys of music. “Everything is on the point of decline” states the opening track of Patience (After Sebald), a statement that not only translates to the album itself, but how The Caretaker approaches music. In Szpilman’s case, his life was in shackles, a complete decline in every sense, but when he was playing the piano he was free, somewhere else completely despite his circumstance. The Caretaker’s music is the product of time regressed vinyl, forgotten and decayed as years turned into decades, yet the music he creates out of his damaged sources cradles a delicate fragility, and despite their condition beauty is the result of its own decline.
As The Caretaker, Leyland Kirby has been developing a sound since the late '90s uniquely his own. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Kirby takes fragments of obscure turn of the century ballroom 78s and warps them into surrealistic, dream-like reminisces of the time in which they came. These compositions generally work in one of two ways; one, as a repetitive loop of a gently woven phrases, lulling the listener into a slightly comatose state of trance, or two, as a longer succession of blending phrases that appear and re-appear in a dizzying aural sentiment. Last year's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World embraced the latter, and proved his music could reach a wider audience, as the album was met with a surprising amount of critical praise. An Empty Bliss acted as a welcome introduction to his more challenging back catalogue; where The Caretaker’s music is in every sense of the word, colder.
Though taken into consideration, Patience (After Sebald) is a different beast in The Caretaker’s catalogue. The album is a soundtrack to Grant Gee's film of the same name (who also directed Radiohead’s Meeting People Is Easy), which documents the work of influential German writer W.G. Sebald. Gee describes the film as a "multi-layered essay on landscape, art, history, life and loss", while Kirby has stated his soundtrack is "more of a winter album" and "alot darker". Taken in as an album, Patience doesn't necessarily feel like a set of songs attached to a film, rather a loose interpretations of the gripping surrealist black and white frames of the movie. Though because the film is relatively dark in subject matter, the tone of the album is much bleaker than that of its predecessor, like the wide-eyed portrait of a hanging willow tree shrouded in a blanket of snow, or the monochrome hallucinations of Chaplin-era cinematography.
The most notable difference between Patience and other Caretaker albums is that it consists heavily of century-old recordings from classical genius Franz Schubert, deconstructed, warped, and re-imagined in typical Caretaker fashion. This gives Patience an unsettling sense of romanticism; the piano melodies are lighter and more sparse, as opposed to the often weighted density of previous albums. Gone is The Caretaker’s signature ballroom affair, replaced by unsettling avant-garde classical numbers and noise obscured black and white memories. For the most part the change in sound is less abstract than previous material, though the way Kirby constructs these songs follows the challenging bleakness of his earliest work, making it less immediate, while still maintaining his signature haunting atmosphere; like the ghosts of another Stanley Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon.
The album’s darkest arrangements introduce confronting elements to the music, such as the wall of noise hissing throughout the depths of the albums opening number, or the thick vibrations of sunken choral drones lingering throughout “Now the night is over and the dawn is about to break”. These foreboding characteristics can be heard harmonizing with one another on “No one knows what shadowy memories haunt them to this day”, as an opaque veil of static looms amongst the bellow of a cloaked and faceless choir. Further down the spiral, alienation is suggested as the equivalence of death on “I have become almost invisible, to some extent like a dead man”, as a suspenseful piano melody sparsely resonates its dire allegory, while time slowly advances through the faint ticking of a clock.
Though occasionally we are pulled out of the depths of these somber melodies by a number of uplifting pieces, yielding a fine rosary amidst the grieving sorrow. “A last glimpse of the land being lost forever” may be The Caretaker’s most straightforward recording to date, yet it commands such a heartbreaking ambience. Similarly, there’s an emotionally endearing quality within the innocence of a track like “Increasingly absorbed in his own World”, which sounds reminiscent of the whimsical piano melodies heard on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, evoking a kind of unsettlingly sentimental wonder. When it comes to sheer aching beauty, “When the dog days were drawing to an end” rivals anything The Caretaker has ever recorded, leaving the listener vulnerable to a flood of incandescent memories, as the sparkling simplicity of a repeated succession of keys drowns sorrow into the recesses of the mind in which it came.
One of Leyland Kirby’s strongest assets as a musician is his ability to contrast moods, themes, and concepts, and on Patience he manages to find an intriguing balance between beauty and hostility. This makes the opposing moods sound believable and relatable to the listener, like Wladyslaw Szpilman’s tender ballad against Jack Torrance’s hallucinatory downfall. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the album, and though it is technically a soundtrack, Patience doesn’t rely on the accompaniment of a visual aid to be effective, for it works just as well as a standalone album as it does a soundtrack. Though it’s bleaker and less immediate that its predecessor, Patience is the first Caretaker album that doesn’t follow in shadow of previous releases, expanding his sound beyond the ballroom while retaining the wide-eyed beauty and ghastly haunt that’s made him such distinct personality in the world of ambient music. Patience (After Sebald) is as much a document on life as it is on loss, ultimately rewarding those willing to listen a little closer, for The Caretaker proves that with every new listen, hidden within the recesses of our mind await memories worth living and dying for in our mortal story of perpetual decline.