“I’m Vera Lynn,” sang Gary Numan in his peculiar evocation of the 30s and 50s as vocodered through eerie 80s electro. But where he was content to tell, The Caretaker, a.k.a. James Leyland Kirby, has shown, and in doing so gone one better — he’s given us the shade of Lynn herself, while making apparent its ghostly, absent nature. It’s as if Kirby, speaking to a postmodern generation steeped in Stone-cold revivalism (“you get your clothes back from the dry cleaners and it’s a revival”), is asking: “You call that retro? This is retro” (but also, this is what retro is, and that may not be the comfortable appropriation you’re familiar with). The tendency of contemporary music to colonize the past, and at the same time to dehistoricize it, is thereby called into question. But even the listener with some familiarity with the material on which An Empty Bliss is built (pre-war dancehall 78s, and I’m not talking about Jamaica) waits for vocals to come in — typically, for this era, late in the piece, a construction sadly neglected in modern-day music — but waits in vain, the moment of satisfaction, of contact with the human other, held out as promise but as a promise eternally suspended, thus making that other spectral.
Over the course of the album, the original pieces are at first relatively foregrounded, the stylus clicks and pops an accompaniment, although these latter are given a sinister, wavering quality as they echo. (One often wonders whether the echo effect is added by the curator or exists in the original — and this very uncertainty is an affective tone of the album.) Behind these steampunk glitches, one hears a low sonic rumble, an endless and fearfully cavernous space (the ballroom) existing concealed by the deceptive limitations of familiar domesticity, as in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. But as the album progresses, this foreground begins to disaggregate: the pieces become shorter and more fragmented, the sound shifts from speaker to speaker (ironically, given the construction based on technological flaws, this is an album that must to be listened to on a decent system) and the experience begins to fall apart, in the manner of William Basinski’s disintegration loops (though never disappearing completely). And then, as a finale, we are treated to a return to the familiar melodies of the early tracks.
Indeed, particular loops (not to mention tracks) emerge and vanish throughout the album, so that the listener is left wondering, Does this sense of familiarity spring from the loop itself or from the very patina that inheres in the scratchy turntable record as such? At times, one is unclear even whether samples are being looped or whether the pieces chosen, in their role as background to an always already arriving vocal line or dance step, are repetitive in and of themselves — and this troubling of repetition is also characteristic. Again, just as the ear slides into the familiarity of the repeated groove, the track will end abruptly mid-theme — as it does on most tracks throughout, though on the final piece we are allowed a classic fade — reminding the listener of the inevitability of death, a memento mori that must go hand-in-hand with the resurrection of sounds as temporally distant as these, with the re-giving of the name and hence finitude, the entry (or, rather, re-entry) into mercilessly linear history.
Speaking of the linear and its discontents, Kirby is concerned both with continuity and fragmentation in the context of memory; the album was inspired by a study on the surprising ability of Alzheimer’s patients to continue to recall songs from the far-distant past, and deals with the troubling of temporal subjectivity associated, for example, with Libet’s delay. But although this is hardly light subject matter, where The (highly prolific) Caretaker’s classic 1999 work Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom was dissonant and reverberated between a variety of textures, An Empty Bliss is both subtle and disconcertingly reassuring — as if the shades of the Overlook Hotel, in imploring the caretaker to join them, were to ask that he should do so through the medium of suicide rather than murder.
Thus, An Empty Bliss can be understood to reconcile the tension between the periodic discordances of Haunted Ballroom and the ambient pleasures of critical darling Persistent Repetition Of Phrases (2008); and this is appropriate inasmuch as the distorted echo, and its fractal persistence across layers of time (from the micro reverb, to the looped phrase, to the macro echo across history as it is marked, or punctuated, by album releases) may be seen as the central thematic of The Caretaker’s aesthetic. Here we have, in the first place, the feedback loop created through the wounding of the studium — loosely, the contextual background — by the punctum — the unintended detail that strikes the observer (we might also conceptualize this relationship as the union of the stylus-as-point with the grooved field of the disc). This in turn is a literalization of the (musical) note as punctum, the way in which the sonic past bleeds into the present, both as dehistoricized field, employed for affective texture, and, paradoxically, as the sharp reminder, the revelation that exactly this aforementioned appropriation is what is taking place — a process that can function only through a self-concealing that is also self-conception. In bringing to light these stillborn-again pleasures, The Caretaker reveals himself to be nothing less than formidably eponymous.