Over the past fifteen years, Berlin-based British composer James Leyland Kirby has devoted more time to the relationship between music and memory than most musicians ever will. His 2008 album, Persistent Repetition Of Phrases, uses looped, glitched and degraded electronics as a metaphor for degenerative diseases of the mind. "Lacunar Amnesia," "Von Restorff Effect," and the album's title track played on the notion of the brain being trapped inside a moment in the past, itself foggier and foggier with each recollection. Kirby's music fused grainy ballroom ambience with a softly deteriorating sense of time, history, and self.
With An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, his second full-length foray as The Caretaker, Kirby tackles amnesia, building on his previous work with the subject in 2005's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. This time around, Kirby contemplates the ability of Alzheimer’s patients to recollect passages of music from their past and connect them to specific people and places. Sourced from Kirby’s massive collection of '78s, the pieces return him to the faded arena of ballroom jazz, which he further corrodes with subtle loops and haunted static. Kirby's chosen subject matter surfaces most explicitly in song titles like "I Feel As If I Might Be Vanishing," "Moments of Sufficient Lucidity," and "Tiny Gradiations Of Loss." A few titles even reoccur in the span of the album, but with the accompanying audio in varying degrees of decay.
These samples range from seemingly complete songs, lifted from the past with crisp recollection, to pieces that feel clouded and frustratingly incomplete. As time and the album wear on, the level of clarity waxes and wanes; graininess evolves into holes and gaps as passages replay, eroded by wear, age, and, metaphorically, by disease. It's as though the album is trying to recall the originals, but is failing. For anyone who’s witnessed the frustrating effects of Alzheimer's in real life, it's hard not to be touched by Kirby's drive to understand the emotions that accompany the deterioration of the brain-- not only the part of the patient, but also that of the observer. The result is one of the most devastatingly tender electronic albums of the year.