How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Consciousness-to-Content Pipeline

Tomas Einarsson

Everywhere at the End of Time, The Caretaker’s (or Leyland James Kirby’s) longest piece to date, is a six and half hour long ambient project documenting Alzheimer’s gradual corroding effect on the mind. It’s a harrowing listen that might not exactly be the cheeriest thing to dive into over lockdown. And yet I can’t seem to let go of it.

The first three segments still make some sense: haunted ballroom music reverberates and bounces off itself, equal parts nostalgic and uncanny. What quickly becomes apparent though is the cerebral atmosphere throughout. The discord which slowly sets in captures a song-stuck-in-your-head kind of collage: you might forget lyrics or certain bits of a song, but that doesn’t stop your brain from filling in the blanks in a way that doesn’t really make sense, but sounds about right. Despite its eeriness then, a set of aural rose-tinted glasses continuously try (and eventually fail) to cover the cracks as Alzheimer’s seeps through the walls of the mind.

That’s what the project’s long-form achieves so well: the prolonged exposure to its source-material, its baseline, in Parts 1 and 2 familiarize you with the brain The Caretaker is trying to introduce you to. What it liked, how it functioned when healthy, and so on. Then, as the gaps and fissures become too apparent to ignore, a panic sets in. The album establishes a nostalgia for itself as the haunted ballroom music becomes more and more distorted - the album’s ‘brain’ succumbing to Alzheimer’s genuinely feels like your own. Like the bewilderment of an Alzheimer’s patient lost in their own home and unable to recognize their family, awareness slips away as the mind can’t help but fill in the gaps with uncanny repetition. Something is terribly wrong, and you, the listener, can tell.

Stage 3 exists in the twilight zone between lucidity and decay; the heart-breaking realization that consciousness is slipping away. Stage 4, so The Caretaker explains, marks the point of ‘post-awareness’: what is left of the mind’s recollection of ballroom music is garbled, confusing, scary. A genuine sense of fear takes over somewhere between 3 and 4, the long-form decay allowing only for glimpses at lucidity. Stages 5 and 6 are genuinely hard to listen to, being little more than drone-turned-harsh noise that in context of the rest of the album signifies the total loss of mental capacity. It’s not for the faint of heart, sounding like the record player needle hitting the end of the vinyl. It’s a kind of heartbreak horror, a tragedy so personal and so all-encompassing that it might be best if you never listen to it at all. And yet, harrowing as it is, Everywhere at the End of Time is in equal parts fascinating: a culmination of Kirby’s experience with crafting haunted ballroom music, it strikes a nerve usually reserved for cold, clinical settings.

Last summer, while desperately trying to come up with an idea for my English Literature Masters diss, I became aware of it as a macabre internet meme. I figured it might make for a really good topic: It’s weird, it’s new, it’s hyper-modern. Two things quickly put an end to that idea, though. First of all, I study neither music nor composition so I’d be hard-pressed to convince any academic tutor that I can turn this collage of dementia into something worth marking. Secondly, and much more importantly, TikTok found it.

The New York Times article on TikTok’s obsession with the album sort of touches on what first struck me about Everywhere at the End of Time. It feels like a representation of not only Alzheimer’s, but also the sense of decay which defines the contemporary Zoomer Zeitgeist. TikTok seems to have a strange relationship with nostalgia, but there’s something about the Chinese-owned platform’s encounter with The Caretaker that just makes it that much spookier. Some young users found solace in its auditory description of Alzheimer’s horrible course, helping them understand their own grandparents' slow decline due to the disease. Others saw it as a challenge. Trying to get  through the album without breaking down or having an existential crisis could garner thousands of likes, even if it meant turning your own human anxieties about death and consciousness into C O N T E N T.

It’s borderline esoteric in that it feels like forbidden knowledge or a cursed artefact that should’ve been left buried; like something that by rights shouldn’t really be listened to given how invasive and alien it sounds to a  healthy human brain. I’d even call it internet esoterica precisely because it can’t be separated from it. It’s a perfect example of internet hauntology (see: Vaporwave) for a time that either never existed or was never experienced by contemporary internet users. Without the internet there would be no trend for which hundreds of thousands of not-yet-fully-developed teenagers exposed themselves to a project like The Caretaker’s. Even further, without the internet we couldn’t see it be rammed down the content pipeline which, like a sausage-making machine, turns it into neat little content packages ready for consumption. Many of these meat-tube (or MeatTube™, if you will) videos straddle that strange border between awkward performativity and genuine existential horror. Imagine, for example, Jake Paul pretending to have a dementia-induced breakdown instead of pretending to be colourblind.

If the album’s aim is to depict an ageing, tired brain slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, then TikTok in turn depicts underdeveloped brains experiencing that brain. It’s a really eerie ode to twenty-first century internet culture that makes my head hurt thinking about it too much. Call that a Spiral!

Everywhere at the End of Time is terrifying in a way that makes you think you might somehow contract Alzheimer’s from it. Kirby’s experience in piecing together and tearing apart the human mind’s desire for nostalgia is almost too appealing in that it fosters a kind of morbid, internet-borne curiosity usually reserved for Russian Dash-Cam footage of car crashes or ISIS videos. Its effect is inherently tied to its presence on the internet as a nostalgia-making machine which boils it down and commodifies it, despite it being far too great a project to be absorbed that way.  It always makes me think of that video of an old man with dementia seemingly coming back to life upon hearing music from his youth. I can’t help but wonder if We, the Chronically Online, whose brains have been melted by a commodified internet, may one day sit in a care home in a coma-like state only to come back to life upon hearing VengaBoys or, god forbid, mid-2000s dubstep.

Visual selection: Egle Duobaite and Devin Mitter