If there’s a neglected truth about memory, it’s that it always changes in the image of the present that recalls it. Ryan Martin, a.k.a. Secret Boyfriend, understands this only too well, since his sophomore album isn’t so much nostalgic for the past, as it is for the ability to re-member a past that isn’t simply an adulterated figure for the present. Via deceptive expanses of slurried ambient and ethereal looping, he laments the impossibility of “pure” memory, of a memory that’s fixedly stored once-and-for-all and reproduced with complete fidelity to the past of which it’s a trace. In the absence of such a record of time, he finds himself awash in transparent synths and trickling guitars, in an impure memory that’s contaminated anew with every present that tries to reconstruct it.
It’s this sense of contamination, of fluidity and openness, that sets Memory Care Unit apart from the scattered lo-fi of its predecessor. Opener “The Single Bile” is all murkiness and pollution, a raft of disembodied synth that expands and contracts with Martin’s every attempt to corner something of his former life. Its spectral waves and hallucinatory burring are tools he uses to provoke and exercise his memory, to relive a past experience that’s more vivid and alive than the gauzy, greyish, and ghostly present they embody. But instead, any past experience they do resuscitate is instantly mixed and sullied with their own cloudiness, so that rather than enabling Martin to leave behind his present, they merely clothe its mood and tone in the empty signifiers of yesterday.
This failure to escape into a pristine memory is what engenders the thick mood of alienation that haunts the album. Faded collages like “Little Jammy Centre” and “They’re Playing Themselves” are Martin being estranged from his own past by the foggy mélange of everything that came after it. Their desolate twinkling and frail beats are the weariness of an imperfect now that can’t help but project its ennui into the happier past it struggles to reassemble, while the humid atmospherics and swirling contours of “Paean Delle Palme” and “Memorize Them Well” are the aural representation of lived time being collapsed into a single melting pot, where no single moment is experienced and felt without the contagion of every other.
Martin’s work has been delving into this kind of mnemonic phenomenology for a few years now, but on Memory Care Unit, it gains a malingering intensity that sinks beneath the skin and stays there. In that respect, its tides and trails of synthesizer are much like the confusion of experiences he fails to run away from on “Stripping At The Nail,” where he sings of being “Lost in details/ So they shutter yesterday against the now.” This admission of being lost and the mix of “yesterday” with the present-tense “is” reveals that Martin is stranded, not simply in the present or the past, but in a present that’s always tainted with the past and a past that’s always tainted with the present. For him, this means that he never experiences anything in “itself,” but for us, at least, it means that we experience an album that will endure in the memory for a long time to come, except insofar as it will carry the imprint of every other album we’ve ever heard.