The latest from Leyland James Kirby is not only his best album to date, it’s one of the best ambient albums I’ve heard in the past decade. It is both the culmination of Kirby’s past efforts as The Stranger and The Caretaker and also his point of departure from those projects. Sadly, the Future Is No Longer What It Was takes everything I love about Kirby’s previous work and infuses it with a greater diversity of ideas, moods, and colors.
Musically, Sadly is pretty mind-blowing stuff. On the one hand, much of it is familiar in one way or another. We’ve heard Kirby playing with these sounds his entire career, whether he was goofing off or producing truly haunting audio. On the other hand, Sadly features honest-to-God songs and comes across as a total refinement of everything he has done in the past. What distinguishes this album from Kirby’s past efforts isn’t necessarily his technique, but his method. Everything on each of the three albums belongs to James. He played the piano and synthesizers the make up most of the record and he is, of course, repsonsible for all the digital effects, production, and editing. Only the artwork (which is superb, by the way) is the product of someone else’s labor. By utilizing his own performances instead of relying on samples, Leyland James Kirby had the chance to express himself before chopping things up and processing them.
The result is undoubtedly his best record. In addition to producing bigger and more obvious melodies, James pulls finer textures and a better sense of continuity from his own performances than he ever has from someone else’s. I also think that this change in method afforded James the chance to sound a little less dark and dense than he usually does. Sadly isn’t necessarily a happy record, but there are points where it explodes with joy and optimism. He retains some of the haunting qualities I associate more with The Stranger or The Caretaker, but he balances those out with something from the happier side of existence. With the ability to create sounds where he needed them, James went all out and crafted his brightest and most enjoyable record to date, even with the dread and gloom that permeate its darker and more uncertain corners.
Waiting beneath the fuzz and drone of these songs is a conceptual scheme that Kirby has elaborated upon in various interviews. I’ve been wrestling with this album since before it was released, in part because it is such an ambitious and demanding recording, but also because James has put so much of himself and so many of his thoughts into the music. It is impossible to talk about these aspects of Sadly… without first mentioning just how massive an undertaking it is: three double-LPs of new music from the man responsible for V/Vm, The Stranger, and The Caretaker. But, I do not want to spend too much time dwelling on the album’s self-indulgent qualities. I think they’re obvious enough to everyone and, what’s more, Mr. Kirby has tested such deep waters in the past. We are, after all, talking about the same person responsible for the 6-CD Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia boxset. That project stretched its audience’s memory and patience to Béla Tarr-ian limits with a never-ending parade of foggy melodies, distorted dream sounds, and fractured distortion. I’ve always thought it was designed to replicate the same amnesia for which it is named, so that no definite memories of the album could ever form. On Sadly, however, Leyland James Kirby wants his audience to remember.
Along with the album title, many of the songs refer to memory in a general way, and more than a few suggest that Kirby is interested in sharing his own personal memories and thoughts with everyone. Interviews bear this suggestion out, but memories aren’t Sadly’s only theme. Fear and hope are two more and so is uncertainty about the digital era and all that it has given us. In some ways, Sadly is the perfect album for 2009. All three records can be put on an MP3 player and listened to seamlessly, which is to say that Sadly is a perfect example of how digital media can come to our musical rescue. While there will never be a good replacement for handling a piece of wax, a project of this size and kind (i.e., ambient music) benefits from non-stop playback and lack of surface noise, something a record player will never be able to give us. At the same time, James has also chosen to release this project in the form of three double-LP albums. I think everyone can agree that setting an MP3 player to random and enjoying a few tunes on the way to work will never replace sitting in front of a record player, handling the sleeves, and reading the liner notes (not to mention the better audio quality home systems provide). When handling a record, rarely can it be mistaken for just another piece of music or another thoughtlessly acquired hour of sound.
So, with James’ distrust and distaste for modern media made apparent in his interviews, it was odd to see a digital release available at all. But, Mr. Kirby is clearly confident about his work and what it means. Sadly’s size and scope force the on-the-go MP3-loving train hopper (me) to slow down, listen carefully, and to treat the digital file like something more than a commodity. In a way, it wouldn’t be going too far to call Sadly one of the first truly modern albums of the digital era. While casting a leery glance at the recent past, James also sets his sights firmly on what the future might bring. But, instead of dystopian chaos and emotionless, machine-like repetition, Kirby offers up something more hopeful and breath-taking. The soulless commoditization of music isn’t the only possible outcome of the digital revolution; there are other more positive possibilities. Learning how to live with these new mediums is obviously something Kirby is mulling over. These are confusing times, he might say, but the world is what we make it.