Credit: Henry be via Unsplash

Should music transcend context?

By Fred Bruce

In a world where artists curate their tracks so carefully, often crafting elaborate themes surrounding albums; can we separate music from its intended message? Fred Bruce looks at The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the End of Time, David Bowie’s Blackstar and Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops for answers.

Rose-tinted or otherwise, we experience all art through the glasses of circumstance. Perhaps more than any other medium, our perception of music is distinctly altered by our emotional state. Sometimes songs just hit different – it’s all about the context. 

The reverse is equally true: music cannot be created in a vacuum. Just as we are as listeners, every musician is a product of their environment. They are affected by events in their own lives, as well as shifts and events occurring the world over. Consciously or not, these developments inevitably bleed into the creative process, leaving their fingerprints all over the artist’s sound. 

We take all of this for granted. Diving deep and unpicking the myriad influences and themes that weave together to form an album is, frankly, a lot of work. And while doing so may genuinely enhance our experience, we often have to have already established a connection with the music to warrant going that next step. However, when an intimate knowledge of a project’s context is a requirement for its appreciation, is that at odds with music’s purpose as a borderless artform? If listening to an album unprepared ruins it, are we right to dismiss it? Or is holding music to that accessible standard unfairly primitive? Worse, does that perspective actively discourage broader experimentation within the field?

These questions and more were on my mind while I listened to The Caretaker’s latest and final album Everywhere at the End of Time. James Leyland Kirby has been producing music under the Caretaker moniker for over twenty years now, but Everywhere at the End of Time stands as his longest and most critically renowned release. A six-hour epic released episodically between 2016 and 2019, the piece is a momentous musical statement in six long acts. Exploring themes of memory loss and mental decay, Kirby takes various 30s-era ballroom pieces and increasingly contorts them in parallel with the deterioration of a dementia-riddled mind. Motifs are introduced, disturbingly reprised and eventually forgotten as a chilling wall of noise gradually overwhelms the record. 

The experience is haunting. Even from the relatively untouched opening tracks, Everywhere at the End of Time evokes feelings unlike anything I have come across before. For that, Kirby deserves an incredible amount of praise. However, the lingering question pieces in this vein raise is: without prior knowledge of the artist’s intentions and a concrete idea of what to look for in the album, would it have the same effect? If not, does that diminish its artistic merit?

The answer to the first question is, in my opinion, a simple no. 

While the pervading melancholy of Everywhere at the End of Time can be connected with by anyone, I don’t believe the album’s representation of Alzheimer’s can be communicated without some prior knowledge. The second question, however, requires further examination.

Kirby’s project and the discourse surrounding it is reminiscent of an ambient work released at the turn of the millennia, namely legendary composer William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. The album’s accidental origins are well known, coming about as Basinski was transferring his earlier compositional works from magnetic tape onto digital. By allowing them to continuously loop through the worn-down machine, the tape gradually deteriorated and fell apart. The physical material was breaking down and thus the music itself was literally disintegrating. Further treating the results with subtle effects, Basinski’s project culminated on 11 September 2001, a date and tragedy that imbued itself inseparably into the project. All of this led to Basinksi’s work being arguably the most acclaimed work of ambient music this decade. Even detached from these circumstances, the album is a series of wonderfully dark, ethereal pieces of instrumental music. But the themes of degeneration and entropy prevalent in The Disintegration Loops entwine it so closely with its creation that the tapes cannot exist on their own, even hypothetically. In cases like this and Everywhere at the End of Time, the synthesis of the art and its environment is unbreakable. 

It must be said that albums like these are fringe examples. In less extreme instances, we see projects that are elevated, commercially and artistically, by their context, but which are capable of standing alone. These can be social commentaries like Childish Gambino’s 2018 hit This is America or deeply personal reflections such as David Bowie’s elegiac Blackstar. Looking at the former especially, the societal landscape on its release as well as the incredible accompanying music video were undoubtedly major factors in its success. No one can deny the track itself is catchy, and Glover’s performance and production are top-notch, but it is difficult to picture This is America reaching the dizzying heights it did without the surrounding controversy. 

Whether this is necessarily a bad thing is hard to say. On the one hand, when measuring a song’s merit, focussing so heavily on its meaning surely diminished the importance of its sound. Does a song deserve more acclaim in relation to its themes and statements? Arguably, no. Alternatively, music can never be just music. It is a multi-layered and multi-sensory medium that, at times, transcends what only our ears can register. If we demand albums that can be appreciated wholly in isolation, it seems we’re asking to be spoon-fed inoffensive schlock. And music should be more than that. Perhaps it simply requires a shift in perspective. At the risk of sounding disgustingly clichéd, maybe what makes good music is not just what we hear but what we feel. You don’t need to be in love with Bowie’s discography to appreciate the dark beauty of Blackstar; a listener who has that background and one who doesn’t will simply have different connections to the album. The Disintegration Loops still possess an apocalyptic otherworldliness that anyone can be enveloped by. In the end, music can only be what the listener makes of it – finding the right song at the right time can turn anything into a masterpiece in your own eyes. Our contexts change, but the artistic connections we make remain with us.


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