Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
James Kirby's Caretaker Project Comes to a Powerful End

A couple weeks ago Fish released his new single.

Fish, if you don’t know, is a Scottish singer with a long pedigree. He was the original singer for Marillion, back when they were disciples of ‘70s progressive rock, and with him the band scored their biggest hits. After he left Marillion in 1988, Fish launched a solo career that has certainly had its ups and downs. But lately – heck, ever since 2003’s Field of Crows – he’s been on a mighty upswing. 2013’s A Feast of Consequences may well be his best work.

At least for now. For years Fish has been working on what he is billing as his final album. He’s called it Weltschmerz, a German phrase that means “pain of the world.” I’ve liked what I’ve heard, from the menacing “Man With a Stick” to the expansive “Waverly Steps,” but this new single, “Garden of Remembrance,” is the first time in Fish’s long history that he has made me cry.

The song and its extraordinary video are about dementia. They detail an elderly couple as they struggle with one partner’s loss of memory and identity, and Fish digs into the ways dementia can make longtime lovers feel like strangers. The video depicts how moments of clarity can feel like tender reunions. It’s beautiful stuff, and it got me thinking about dementia as a subject. My grandmother suffered from it in her final years, and it’s always been a particular fear of mine, to lose my grasp of who I was and who I am.

This, of course, led me to research other musicians who have tackled this subject, and that rabbit hole led me to The Caretaker. I’d heard of James Leyland Kirby before, and in fact listened to both his solo work and his music under the Caretaker name, but I apparently missed hearing anything about his magnum opus. About four years ago, Kirby began releasing a massive project called Everywhere at the End of Time, billing it as the final Caretaker album.

And really, even just reading about it, this has to be the final Caretaker album, because there’s nowhere else for the project to go. As the Caretaker, Kirby crafted haunting soundscapes out of old recordings of 1920s ballroom music, adding effects and editing them into loops to simulate memory and nostalgia. I can’t explain how or why it works, but it does. Listening to a Caretaker album feels like being very old and looking back on fading moments of joy. It’s beautiful and sad and dark and magical stuff.

But I’ve never heard any of Everywhere at the End of Time, and today I plan to correct that. This album, released in six distinct stages, is six and a half hours long, and is intended to mirror the experience of dementia. The music, so evocative of long-ago memories, is meant to deteriorate over time, and listening to it all in a row is intended to depict, from Kirby’s point of view, what losing one’s memory and sense of self must feel like.

Sounds like a good way to spend a pandemic Saturday, no?

I’m listening to Stage One now, and will write my impressions of this monster as we go. I expect this will be emotionally overwhelming about five hours from now, and I will try to capture it as best I can. If it gets too overwhelming, I will stop, but I hope to liveblog this entire experience from start to finish in one go. If you also want to have this experience – and I understand I am saying this before I take the plunge myself – you can download the whole thing for surprisingly little money here.

OK, here we go.

1:30 p.m.

Stage one: Here we experience the first signs of memory loss. This stage is most like a beautiful daydream. The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days.

That’s Kirby’s description of this first of six albums, and it tracks perfectly. Here are twelve pretty, hazy pieces formed from 1920s ballroom records, with the pops and crackles intact to add even more of a nostalgic feel. This is most similar to other Caretaker music I’ve heard, with a deeply romantic feel, like remembering the best dance of your life. There are a couple here, like “Slightly Bewildered” and “Quiet Internal Rebellions,” that speak to a hint of loss, but mostly this is gorgeous.

I find this music so easy to get lost in, so evocative of holding on to a life well lived. Everything here feels new, but also familiar. There’s a tinge of melancholy to it, but an ever-so-slight one, and the overwhelming emotion is joy. The horns on “Into Each Other’s Eyes” are punchy even through the mist, feeling like springtime in the movies. These days do feel great, and I expect I will soon wish they were not the last. Stage two is looming.

2:15 p.m.

Stage two: The second stage is the self-realization and awareness that something is wrong with a refusal to accept that. More effort is made to remember so memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality. The overall personal mood is generally lower than the first stage and at a point before confusion starts setting in.

Oh, this is already getting to me. Stage Two feels like the same memories, only glimpsed through a thickening fog. Everything is slower, less full of life. The strings and horns weep instead of dance. I can feel the joy of Stage One slipping away, and the worst part is that none of it is gone yet. The songs are still recognizable, the memories still tangible, but you can feel that something is off kilter, something is slowing everything down.

When Kirby re-uses source material, that’s when this hurts the most. “What Does It Matter How My Heart Breaks” is built from the same piece that opened Stage One, only deteriorated and worn and sluggish. It’s like the song is trying to remember itself, but can’t quite get there. This stage ends with a song called “The Way Ahead Feels Lonely” – all of these titles feel like suggested meditations while the music is playing – and it’s almost desperate in its attempt to claw at the sadness surrounding it. The ending feels like sinking beneath the waves. This all still feels nostalgic, but that nostalgia is getting harder and harder.

3:00 p.m.

Stage Three. Here we are presented with some of the last coherent memories before confusion fully rolls in and the grey mists form and fade away. Finest moments have been remembered, the musical flow in places is more confused and tangled. As we progress some singular memories become more disturbed, isolated, broken and distant. These are the last embers of awareness before we enter the post awareness stages.

Functionally, this stage is not too different from Stage Two. These pieces are deteriorated further, some of them doubling back on themselves in an approximation of confusion. (My grandmother would ask the same questions multiple times in the same conversation, and this feels like the musical equivalent of that.) Some of these deteriorations are subtle, some are drastic as compared to Stage Two. The same piece of music that opened the first stage reappears here again, for instance, as “And Heart Breaks,” and it’s sadder and slower and harder to pin down.

There’s more noise here as well, which feels to me like the brain spinning fog around these memories, making them more difficult to access. A track called “Internal Bewildered World” barely feels like the music it is based on, the big band sounds only faintly audible beneath the static and drawn-out moans made from the melody lines. It’s haunting. Things get more confused and chopped up from there, as these memories gasp for life. This one is more jarring than sad, although a drone like “Aching Cavern Without Lucidity” no doubt presages some of what is to come.

I feel a little worn out already, and we’re just launching into the more difficult parts of this. The three stages I’ve already listened to encompass 38 of the 50 tracks that make up the whole, but only two of its six and a half hours. The final three stages are all made up of four tracks each, with each track running more than 20 minutes. We’ll see how I do. It’s not emotionally overpowering yet, but I am feeling this music, especially the sheer amount of it, in ways that I am not sure I expected.

4:30 p.m.

Stage Four. Post-Awareness Stage Four is where serenity and the ability to recall singular memories gives way to confusions and horror. It’s the beginning of an eventual process where all memories begin to become more fluid through entanglements, repetition and rupture.

Oh man. This stage was an hour and a half long, and it’s draining. Three of the four tracks are titled “Post Awareness Confusions,” and they sound like it. Everything is jumbled up and difficult to make sense of. These tracks are clearly built with the same source material as the previous three stages, but nothing coheres. There are snatches of pianos and horns, but they are soon swallowed up by the noise and fog. I found this music hard to concentrate on, but at the same time I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.

That’s sections one, two and four. The third section is called “Temporary Bliss State,” and it’s something else entirely – a respite, a reprieve for 22 minutes. It’s probably constructed from the same pianos that made up much of the earlier material, but these have been manipulated to sound like ethereal chimes, and they float through the noise, carrying you along. This section is no less confusing, but it is less abrasive, less horrifying, and in that way it lives up to its title.

More than anything, what I took from this section is that the length of this experience is the point. This bewilderment is unending, and an hour and a half of it is nothing compared to the everyday torment of a post-awareness dementia patient. Even so, I can’t imagine what the next three hours of this thing are going to do to me. My head is swimming, and I feel like I cannot remember the songs I heard only a couple hours ago. I have never listened to anything else but this noise.

6:00 p.m.

Stage Five. Post-Awareness Stage 5 confusions and horror. More extreme entanglements, repetition and rupture can give way to calmer moments. The unfamiliar may sound and feel familiar. Time is often spent only in the moment leading to isolation.

Oh. Oh.

I am spent. This is tough going. Stage Five is a story in two parts. First is the 45-minute “Advanced Plaque Entanglements,” which is the most harrowing part of this journey. It is like Stage Four’s most abrasive moments, but everything is ramped up. It is denser and more confusing, with more bursts of noise and disorientation. The most affecting parts come when Kirby lets us hear moments of the recognizable music from the first two stages – a few piano chords here, a horn line there. It’s memories peeking through the cacophony of terror, snatches of a former life that can no longer be remembered. These bits go on for mere seconds, barely long enough to register, before we are back to the howling. It is legitimately horrific.

The second part, just as long, is a descent into dissolution. “Synapse Retrogenesis” calms things down, sinking slowly into “Sudden Time Regression Into Isolation,” which is almost an ambient dirge. This is the last of the memories and identity being wiped away, and replaced with a dull nothingness. I cannot imagine living this way, hearing this inside my head at all times. I also am not sure how I am going to make it through the next 90 minutes if they are like this. This might be the most physically draining music I’ve ever heard.

I’m in it for the long haul now, though. No matter how emotionally and spiritually exhausting Stage Six is, I’m not stopping.

7:30 p.m.

Stage Six: Post-Awareness Stage Six is without description.

While I don’t agree with Kirby here – I am certainly going to try to describe this – I do think that nothing I write here will emulate for you what it is like to hear this, especially at the end of this six-and-a-half-hour journey. The exhaustion is part of the experience, the sense that nothing has ever been right and will ever be right again. While the previous two stages used medical titles for their tracks, this one returns to the emotional titles of the first few stages. (“A Confusion So Thick You Forget Forgetting,” as an example.) You’re meant to feel this, meant to succumb to its cavernous despair.

Stage Six is 85 minutes of near-nothingness, of darkness opening its maw and swallowing you. There is no sensory awareness for this stage – the noise has enveloped everything, but worse, the noise itself is distant and quiet. There are waves of it, but nothing like we heard in Stage Five. This stage is numbness, a mind unable to access even itself. What is remarkable is that it is clearly built from the same elements as the first couple stages, only slowed down to an almost time-breaking degree. We still hear the occasional piano hit, but it’s part of the empty nothing. The horns come in, distorted and sad, near the end of “Long Decline is Over,” but they quickly lose form and are folded back into the chasm. Everything has degraded until none of it exists.

And it emptied me right out. I’m not sure how to explain what it feels like to hear this, to come to this destination after such a long walk. And I am certainly not going to be able to explain the flood of emotions wrapped up in the final six minutes of “Place in the World Fades Away,” the concluding track. This whole thing is a dirge, in which individual elements can barely be discerned. It is the final dimming of the light, the final smearing of the lens. It’s louder than I expected, after the near-silence of the first three tracks.

And then, six minutes from the end, the dirge cuts, the record cues back up with the crackles at their normal speed, and the full-on 1920s music begins. And it is gorgeous. I think the idea here is that memories are restored at the moment of death? But hearing music, especially music this sad and glorious, after four and a half hours of confusing, heart-sinking noise, is inexpressible. It may be one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever had with an album. It’s stunning. The last minute of the album is the silence of death, and its abruptness is shocking and perfect.

This is a thoughtful, difficult, hard-to-digest work. But it is also capable of devastating you emotionally, of cutting past all the questions about how it was made and what it signifies and just stabbing you in the heart. I end it tired and sad and uplifted at the same time. I had more to say here, but I have forgotten it. I am lying down. I am lost in thought. My words are gone. This will have to do.

See you in line Tuesday morning.