Stars of the Lid – And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky, 2007)

It recently came to my attention that I’m now classed as being in my late twenties, which struck me as an odd thing to consider. My 28th birthday passed by in April with little ceremony, similar to my 27th, both of which were lockdown birthdays, so I suppose on that basis I don’t feel¬†28. But then, I’ve never really had an idea on what an age is “supposed” to feel like anyway: at a certain point numerical years just stop having meaning.

The conversation that spawned this realisation was had with schoolmates I’ve known more than half my life, a casual but articulate chat in a group of friends who have literally watched one another grow up, laughing then at our younger selves as though they were different people. Now some are married, most with serious partners, some are homeowners; it’s all so natural, this imperceptible evolution of self, and the way our lives have all grown over the years.

A few days later I was thinking back on the evening we had and how settled some of us had become. Soon there’ll be more marriages on the way, and no doubt children as well. Each time we meet we age that little bit more, and in that frozen space of time between gatherings we all become wiser, more sophisticated, more mature, more articulate. In a way, it is like we’re different people, and each a little bit closer to a (inevitable) dissolution, to The Decline.

I first listened to aTRotD over ten years ago sometime around the age of 18 whilst I was still getting to grips with some of the more essential Ambient artists. It was a record I struggled with then, and whilst it’s still not my favourite album of theirs (that belongs easily to The Ballasted Orchestra), I realise now that it wasn’t my Electronic-centric background that was holding me back on this more acoustic, Modern Classical music at the time, but rather my age. A number that means nothing except symbolically, yet betrays the ignorance in youth.

As a teenager all you really have is the present and the immediate future, powered by an arrogant confidence only possible in someone who hasn’t yet had their hubris exposed to the face of life. Everything at that time is about maturation, expansion, definition, of coming into an understanding of one’s self. And while yes, all those same things continue to happen (it seems) at 28, the picture’s clearer now of the path towards becoming,¬†and my direction along its course having been copiously humbled.

It’s obvious why Refinement of the Decline, an album about the bittersweet notion of constant iterative improvement despite and during inevitable descent, seems far more poetic and interesting to me today than it did then. It is filled with a sort of terminal self-assuredness, a maturity of sound that could only come from a group that were cognisant of their ever extending finesse, yet marred with the overbearing sense of finiteness.

This is the last release Stars of the Lid put out, a notable point given the title, and so what? At some point there’ll be a day where you’ll not see your friends again, there’ll be a last time your family get together, there’ll be a last time you close your eyes. Life’s final irony is dying at our peak, our wisest and most experienced moment in the eternal present. Yet it won’t have been for nothing, because in that climbdown and despite of it there was life, there was growth, there was love. We did things, made the most of them, built on them right up to the end.

I’m seeing those friends again in a couple of months time; no doubt when we catch up there’ll be news to trade and new stories to make, and the refinement will go on, as it always has.