Review Summary: preserve your memories / they're all that's left you
The conceit of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, I’m sure, well known to you, but for the purposes of recapitulation I’ll render it here in brief: two people, ex-lovers, choose to have memories of the other erased, rendering a 3 year relationship non-extant; after all, memory, the only thing which tangibly connects us from point A to Z and the detours in between, is the hook, the proof of existence. The film is marketed as Science Fiction, an exploration of what would happen should technology be able to erase – or rewrite – our memories, and the effect on sense of self that would form a necessary corollary to exposure to such technology.
But, while erasing specific memories is impossible, there is actually a way to self-modify one’s own memory in the comfort of one’s own home. Through a combination of severe alcohol abuse, and taking more than the recommended dose of a benzodiazepine and Seroquel, it’s possible to watch memory crumble and disintegrate. Memories still occur, bubble to the surface, but in snatches and glimmers free from any overarching personal narrative. Here I am taking my dog for a walk while the darkest moments of twilight descend; there am I am supine on a bed, an ex-partner sprawled over me and playing with my hair; there I am, in an unfamiliar motel, clothes unwashed and haggard, downing cough syrup until I noisily expel it into a toilet of questionable hygienic integrity. In the moment, there is no relationship between the memories. They appear in a pointillistic, ephemeral jumble; a wink of luminesce, of lucidity, and they immediately recede below the surface and you’re as barren, as vacant as the surface of a lunar body.
But other things happen with memory, strange things; even in my most coherent moments, I have as many as four competing recollections of what I was doing when Trump was elected. I’ll spare you the details, but have distinct memories superimposed themselves on an epochal moment, blindly stumbling for a convenient anchor and finding it? Have I conflated things that happened and combined them into a causal chronology that, albeit conflicting with others, takes senseless things and forces an inapplicable rendering of events so they fit neatly when really life is more confused? Finally; how do we know that what we’re remembering is what occurred? What if each time we recall a memory it produces a new memory, losing fidelity and truth with each recollection until what we’re left with is a memory stripped of colour and truth, a degraded and decayed facsimile of what was? How do we blunder our way out of the fog?
I have lived in this fog for longer than I care to remember, and Gentle Heart has been with me while I’ve blundered through the mist.
Gentle Heart is the third instalment – or perhaps completion of a trilogy, but with music and creator as enigmatic as this I wouldn’t put the house on it – in Templeton’s “Heart” inquiries, and the most personal. “Scotch Heart” saw him attempting to trace his lineage and forebears, “Jealous Heart” dealt with decay, of being covetous of youthful exuberance, a sad record permeated with wistfulness, but “Gentle Heart” is, well, gentle, an exploration of the ephemera and minutiae that make up – well, us.
So the album is comprised of tape loops, slightly decayed so they sound diffuse and refracted, and the thesis, the point, is that even for the best of us memory is fleeting and incoherent. That said, this isn’t a Leyland Kirby exercise. The distorted loops don’t signify complete decay, as with Alzheimers and dementia, but something more relatable, gentle: the way time distorts and suffuses memory, inevitably, but doesn’t and can’t erase them entirely.
Ephemera bleeds into ephemera; one would be frustrated if each warped tape loop didn't outdo, or at least offer a thrilling counter-point, to the next. The effect is accumulative, as a succession of fleeting vignettes that don’t form a coherent story, at least in linear terms, but which tell a story nonetheless. Opening tracks “Burning Brush” and “Range Road” offer melancholy phrases, gradually distorted and played with until they become both eerie and comforting; “Pond” disintegrates into its barest bones, in a way reminiscent of Sunshine Has Blown, without forgoing the tangible melody. “Cab Lights” recalls a heady night of journeying that begins with triumphant horns and concludes with maudlin deterioration. Horizontal Plane (I’d like to get Plane horizontal ayyyy) does something similar, but more overtly, with gloomy ambient and a wistful plucked mandolin lick superimposed on the exhilaration of the beginning.
But then, in the last three tracks, something magical happens: “Encore” compenetrates loops and sound effects found in the album and turns it into a conventional song, with satisfying rises that results in closure of the doubt offered by the preceding tracks; the final two tracks, the titular suite of the album, dissolves the spectral nature of the tape-loops and makes them corporeal; while the same tricks (rewind, flanged distortion) are employed, it’s over a gentle, breezy melody and a wondrous sense of recapture; though fleeting, though ravaged by time, the memories still exist, and that, Templeton suggests, is enough, possibly more beautiful than if they were rendered verbatim, transient and fugacious and ultimately all the more special for it.
Because that’s the thing about memory; it persists, it lingers, renitent and obdurate. You can try and meddle with it with pharmacological substances, but once the high (or low) wears off they’re still there, a little battered and worse for wear, but short of living life eternally inebriated, there is no way to ameliorate them entirely.
We are all the sum of our parts, even if the parts are distorted; Templeton, by playing with this ambiguity, by operating in the fog of abstraction and dubiety, reveals that our existences are no less beautiful for that, that the wistful, small memories are the ones worth treasuring the most. He also operates outside of the fog, encourages you not to forget, but instead remember; whether good, bad or haunted, it’s still you. As I amble through the fog, it’s this message I take with me; a gentle heart knows there’s beauty to be reaped in the mistakes and sadness as well as the good.
It’s this gentle heart I aspire to.