Phil Freeman (ED.)

Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs [Da Capo]

Books Reviews Phil Freeman
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Phil Freeman (ED.)

The Sand and the Fury
Music critics sound off on every audiophile's favorite hypothetical

There’s a lively debate going on in music circles today, and it’s not about which album you’d choose to spend the rest of your life with if washed up on a deserted (meaning: tourist-free, condo-free, shirtless-Matthew-McConaughey-jogging-down-the-beach-free) tropical island. The pressing question is: Would your chances of surviving on such an island—foraging in the brush for cockroaches and spiders to eat, sparking a fire using twigs and dry grass, slurping coconut milk—be any better than the album’s chance of surviving the hyper-convenience of our digital-delivery age?

Any artists who are remotely tech-savvy can record a song and upload it to their website minutes later for their fans to purchase or download free of charge. The idea of 18-wheelers and distributors and retail chains and rude cashiers and mountains of jewel cases in landfills seems vaguely absurd. Artists are no longer beholden to label release schedules. Music fans are no longer beholden to Ye Almighty Plastic Disc, especially un-rippable, copy-protected ones label execs might as well just post on and sell for $3.99 themselves.

Which brings us to Marooned, a collection of music critics building a case for why the album format is worth a damn. And they do this by discussing the albums that punctured their emotional dam. The testimonials contained in this book show that us human beings caught in the inertia of the mundane occasionally stumble upon a piece of art that flips a light switch in our brain, illuminating something profound and meaningful and even—are we allowed to print the word?—beautiful.

Matt Ashare probably sums it up best in his essay on Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: “All I can say for sure is that it can happen—a 10-year-old kid can have his life turned upside-down and inside-out by something as simple as a double-album of songs. Indeed, it does happen. And, every now and again, if simply by the law of averages, that album is bound to be Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

Most of the contributing writers seem to have discovered their life-changing records while still relatively young. When I think of the first time I heard my own desert-island disc (Björk’s Vespertine, not that you asked), I was 22. That album unlocked a door, ushered me into a world of sound so intimate and textured and euphoric that my surroundings collapsed in a flashing pop, like when you shut off your TV only to be blinded momentarily by the screen’s parting surge of light. The transportation was that absolute. One second I’m in a dusty warehouse packing books for $6/hour listening to a borrowed CD. Next thing I know I’m floating in some kind of perfumed ether. I haven’t had an encounter with music that profound since. I keep waiting. Maybe our capacity for wonder and awe diminishes with age. I hope not.

It’s also interesting to me how often the writers here invoke religious language when discussing their favorite albums. It’s as if the structure of a masterfully crafted record causes the world to make sense in a way that can’t be explained by rational criteria. Ned Raggett on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless: “What does Loveless mean to me? I can describe it in no other fashion but as it was when I first heard it, the impact it had and what was left in its wake. I am not religious—instead, agnostic at heart—but I have felt the force of what others consider revelation. I do not choose the word lightly.”

The book’s only misstep is Scott Seward’s overwrought, stream-of-conscious, write-without-thinking diarrheic spew about—if it’s about anything at all—Divine Styler’s Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light.

Enjoy the following choice section, which Seward writes in all italics because he’s just that proud of himself: “The sound of a heartbeat. Then a slightly dazed and loping electro-shuffle. The sound of robots drunk on God.” Somebody’s drunk but I seriously doubt it’s these robots. And maybe just one more because it gets kind of funny after a while (especially if you read it aloud to your Significant Other in a British accent): “I’ll just take this time to add a big ‘fuck you’ to future hysterical historians looking for hipster ghosts to devour. I’m not your pet griot trickster monkey god…. Put down the pen, Jeeves, and stop looking for an excuse to use the word diaspora. I’m out of here.

I suppose it’s fitting that Marooned itself feels like an album, each chapter a song, yet another discrete part of the whole. I forgive the hiccups because, even on my favorite records, I still skip the occasional track. And the odd throwaway cut only makes the rest sound that much better.