Forgotten Narratives, John Mulville’s debut as Paperbark, was released by Black Box Tapes in 2016. At the time, the prevalence of ambient music seemed to be approaching the point of overload and there were signs things were topping out: DIY labels had come and gone in their tens, if not hundreds; supportive blogs were buried under the dual weights of output and responsibility; and artists themselves were struggling to be heard as ambient layer clambered atop ambient layer. That year, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein were celebrated for their atmospheric work on the Stranger Things soundtrack, Biosphere released what was widely considered his finest album in over a decade in Departed Glories, and Brian Eno – one of the genre’s originators – launched The Ship, which charted higher than any of his albums since Here Come the Warm Jets in 1974. Elsewhere, there were albums from big names such as Tim Hecker, Eluvium, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Loscil and A Winged Victory for the Sullen; The Caretaker launched his career-defining Everywhere at the End of Time series; outsider house musician Huerco S. went fully ambient on For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have); Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke released It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry, and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith started her upward trajectory with EARS. You get the point: ambient and adjacent music was pretty big news at the time.
It takes a special talent to stand out with a product whose raison d’être is to go largely unnoticed. At roughly one release per year since his first, Paperbark has been moving slowly and deliberately through the swamped landscape. What Was Left Behind sees him return to the States with the venerable Constellation Tatsu, having released every album since Forgotten Narratives through Germany’s Seil Records. The formula hasn’t changed much, but it hasn’t had to – Paperbark has remained on the radar for a reason. For all its retro charm and focus on the past (Mulville revealed on Twitter recently that making music helps him process memories, and memory-related track titles abound in his catalogue), this is not overtly backward-looking music. In fact, it ably achieves what all the best ambient music should in that it disconnects from the idea of time altogether, creating that intangible sense of omnipresence that seems to permeate each facet of the listener’s environment. Nothing Paperbark does ever seems forced or over-processed. Instead, his music is allowed to unspool naturally, to develop with feather-light subtlety as layer after gentle layer eases into the scene. There’s also no clear hierarchy at play, as everything he introduces settles comfortably into place, quietly significant no matter how small.
Paperbark’s fascination with memory focuses not so much on dredging up the past as it does on the mechanics of the mind; What Was Left Behind could just as easily be a question as a descriptor of lost time, and the feeling throughout the album is that the artist is exploring the manner in which recollections coalesce, not mourning the good old days. The electric sparks throughout “Open Memory” behave like sinapses firing, becoming steadily more rhythmic as the track progresses and the gaseous synth tones solidify, and “Kicking a Stone” pulls a similar trick with the titular object providing an early pop of discord at it’s daydreaming assailant’s feet. Here the clicks slow and falter as reflections find focus – the stone is hoofed into the hedgerow, itself now forgotten.
Following a year in which the entire planet’s temporal sense has been knocked off kilter, it is gratifying to find there’s no sense of darkness to What Was Left Behind. Some tracks pulsate and meander like brightly-hued jellyfish riding soft waves – there’s a definite feeling of light and warmth to tracks like “What Was Left Behind,” for example, and even “Bring up the Scars” puts its comparatively jagged edges to use, having them keep crackly time as more delicate elements swell through and take the glory. “Light Burning” is an effulgent bloom of a centrepiece, building out of celestial shimmer into a joyous celebration of faith – it’s central tone sears through like a radiant smile as twinkling tears of thankfulness tumble around the edges.
Many artists will reflect on the pandemic year through the dimmest lens available, and understandably so, but it speaks to Paperbark’s skill that he chose a different route. The lag we all have felt – the chronological disconnect we’re suffering to this day – has been incredibly tough to endure and this excellent album is a supremely thoughtful recognition of our attempts to process unprecedented circumstances both individually and as a collective. In its nuance it offers hope; in its haze understanding. As a study of introspection, What Was Left Behind deftly avoids becoming introspective – it is, in fact, incredibly forward-looking. Perhaps it speaks to the project’s own longevity in its insight – memories, after all, cannot exist without a future.