Review Summary: Dixieland jazz meets inner-city depression in one of the year's most beguiling albums.
Moreso than any other album I've heard in 2011, this leaves me wondering exactly how I'm meant to react.
On the most basic level, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
is an album of turntable music pieced together from a patchwork of polite, downbeat jazz samples from the Dixieland era. That might not sound so interesting, but no description can really do justice to how alien
this whole thing feels. A number of commentators across the web, particularly those who (like me) have no prior experience of The Caretaker's work, mention the Bioshock
soundtrack, and that's as good a reference point as you'll get - although it's pulled together from very dated samples (even the people you know who listen to jazz probably don't listen to anything like the records sampled here, which are closer to '40s Disney cartoon soundtracks than the Mingus/Coltrane/Davis axis), it sounds decidedly retrofuturistic, and oddly spacey. The conflict between both the distant past and the imagined future that the album conjures is similar to Lucia Pamela's cult classic Into Outer Space
, but this has none of the wackiness or humour - it's downright depressing at times.
And that's where the next set of comparisons come in, and where it gets odder still. Nobody would associate Lucia Pamela or the Bioshock
soundtrack (or probably even Dixieland jazz itself) with late-night depression, regret and recrimination, but that's squarely where An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
aims itself - at a niche of feeling also occupied by the likes of Burial, Four Tet, Mogwai, and Morphine at their most gloomy. It exists in a claustrophobic, world-weary headspace, and it's constantly haunted by the spectre of death, as the song titles are only too unhappy to confirm - the final track, "The Sublime is Disappointingly Elusive", has a name that hints at a failed suicide attempt, while the likes of "Mental Caverns Without Sunshine", "An Empty Bliss Beyond the World", and "I Feel as If I Might Be Vanishing" don't exactly suggest kittens and ponies and ice cream.
The Caretaker achieves that feeling through some impressively subtle manipulation and recontextualisation. There is lots of crackling, popping, and hissing, which is par for the course when sampling from vinyl recordings as old as these, but that noise is embraced rather than downplayed, and used as just an important part of the overall effect as the melodies and chords are. The melodies themselves, meanwhile, are distorted slightly to make them woozy - this may just be a result of the sources, as aged vinyl tends to have inconsistent timing if not looked after, but it feels too well-judged not to be deliberate. They're also clipped, glitching in and out at random points that disrupt the natural phrasing of the original records; it's notable that the vast majority of the songs here seem to end mid-phrase or mid-bar, disorientating the listener's expectations. The chords, too, are pushed and pulled through their timing, especially on the piano parts that start to dominate the album towards its conclusion.
The wooziness and glitchiness almost makes An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
feel like a wordless concept album too. While the early exchanges are fairly lucid, with traditional melodies looped repeatedly over steadily, subtly changing backings in a way that's almost minimalist, things slowly disintegrate over the course of the album to the point where the likes of "Tiny Gradiations of Loss" and the title track are more about noise and glitching than they are about the jazz material they're sampling. If I'm right about the title "The Sublime is Disappointingly Elusive" referring to a failed suicide attempt (or hell, even a successful one - thus making the title even more depressing), then this concept starts to make sense.
Regardless of whether I'm right or not, it speaks volumes of this album's unusual power that I'm even thinking those kind of thoughts. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
has the kind of effect on the listener. It presents two very obvious and very different concepts, one that its source material is often jolly and very dated to the point of arguably being irrelevant to modern ears, and one that its overal feel is very modern (Burial and How to Dress Well have mined similar feelings for urban isolation lately to much acclaim) and very depressing. Those two ideas just don't match at all, and it sends your brain into overdrive trying to figure it all out, trying to work out where the link is between those two extremes is. Exactly where your brain ends up after that is down to you; it'll probably be this, more than anything that decides whether or not you enjoy this. It's certainly worth taking the time to find out, though; I can't think of any other album that sounds and feels quite like this does.