Let the Strength of Peace Run Through This Land
499 · 19 August 04
A New Desert Island
We have been to these islands a thousand times in dreams, in segmented instants of idle obsession. We have fallen asleep packing for them, ranking and categorizing sheep as if preparing to load the most single-minded of arks. Why the islands draw us, we don't say. How long, how far, why? We don't know, we don't ask. We don't want to know, don't want to clutter our taxonomies and arbitrations with external contingency or environment caveat. The Desert Island Disk obsession is an exercise in solipsistic self-consistency, not adaptive ingenuity. We make these lists to demonstrate to ourselves who we are, not to show anybody else what we are capable of. Why that would ever work, we don't explain, and maybe never really believe. The island is a fantasy of simplification, not just a reduction in numbers but a release from the exhausting complexity of daily identity. Ten final decisions, and then we will be freed from self-doubt and self-questioning forever.
I am giving this up. Self-doubt is good, and this dream release is too much like surrender. This exercise is harmless in idle speculation, but corrosive in churning stasis. I have made my last ten-album soundtrack for eternal dehydration. I will no longer pretend that this is how you prepare to die. I will go to my next shipwreck expecting prompt rescue or clever escape, and if I take music, it will not be so that it can define or console me, but just to take advantage of the brief involuntary solitude. If I fall asleep counting records, let it reflect who I was today, not who I have wished to seem in lists. Let this archivist tic be useful for some real tomorrow.
In parting, then, here are ten albums for a new desert island, not as symbolic proxies for my past or my future, but because I love these specific moments more than I understand, and if tomorrow I were suddenly and calamitously left with nothing to do but invest my full attention in music for an uninterrupted while, with everything to draw from but only enough time to focus on a little of it, this is where I believe I might really begin.
The Comsat Angels: Sleep No More
I can sing you most of Waiting for a Miracle, and large swaths of Fiction and everything after it (even including Fire on the Moon), and I can tell you what I think of Sleep No More, the most atmospheric record by one of the most enduringly remarkable and tragic bands of the post-punk era. But despite repeatedly resurfacing in my life, and being one of the only records I attempted to review twice in the course of this column, Sleep No More has stubbornly remained indivisible and archetypal in my mind. I try to summon what it actually sounds like, and I get only the echoey spaces between the notes. My impressions are inexplicably indelible, and I suspect there's an important lesson in that. I knew how I wanted this album to make me feel before I ever heard it, and know the feeling I want it to recall before I put it on again. This is how we perceive, of course, fitting the world into prepared schemata, but if we are too quick, or too good, the unknown can easily get trivialized into a puzzle to figure out how to convert it into something known. I have spent a lot of time trying to record and remember my reactions, and maybe in doing so sometimes missed experiencing them.
Future Sound of London: ISDN
Electronica has gotten away from me. I was into ambient but alienated by trip-hop, which felt like a manageable handicap, but then maybe I spent too much time listening to Aube records, and one day I sheepishly noticed that where Division of Laura Lee used to lead straight to Dokken in the bins somebody had invented a whole new world with apparently innumerable subgenres based on distinctions I couldn't follow at all. And then the Ambient bin became "Ambient/Trance" and everything in it had "Ibiza" somewhere in the title, and I tried ordering myself to enjoy Faithless and Roni Size, which was interesting but not transformative, and then I got frustrated, wrote it all off again as dance music, and redirected my energies to J-Pop. But obviously that was a cop-out. I'm fairly certain that there are new things being done with electronics that I'd love like I loved several generations of the old things people did with gadgets, and one tactic for finding my way back in might be to relocate a known point of contact and see if I can tell where we diverged. Early FSOL sounded to me like Brian Eno and Jean Michel Jarre reinvented by precocious and impatient kids, which was a fairly splendid idea. But by the sprawling book/album Dead Cities, which seems like it should have been fascinating, I was dismissively pigeonholing and moving on. I think I was last startled and intrigued by ISDN, FSOL's live-broadcast-from-the-studio quasi-concert-album. So maybe that's where I missed a turn.
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3
My Classical phase was another embarrassingly fleeting burst of unorganized enthusiasm that I shouldn't have allowed to disintegrate so readily. In this case I think I know exactly what I did wrong. I tried to crash-embrace about a millennium of culture at once, with the result that I only barely began to identify the threads of what might be my tastes in it before I got pulled back into my other obsessions, and thus I found myself constantly on the outside starting over. Better to follow fewer threads more closely. The good news is that most of what I bought the first time around survived the Purge, so I may already have some of what I need. And I can probably begin by admitting that despite a childhood of desultory cello-playing and a one-semester music-history course in college there's no real reason to believe my rudimentary Classical tastes are anything but resoundingly abecedarian. Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta's elegiac rendition of Górecki's monument to melancholy was a lot of people's novitiate reintroduction to classical music as a modern form, and if I want to be an extraordinary listener I should probably make sure I know how to be an ordinary listener first.
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
My petulant contrarian streak sometimes results in my refusing, sometimes deliberately but more often semi-consciously, to form personal connections with records of acknowledged canonical importance. A form's inventor is not inherently its master, I point out in more rational moments. I'd spent a lot of time listening to records unmistakably derived from MBV's signature evocation of surging blur before I bothered to buy a copy of it myself. I'd spent a lot more time before I listened to it as anything other than a historical artifact. And only very recently did I notice how much I enjoy it. Sometimes records prompt a revolution by lighting a tiny fire in just the right place, but every once in a while there's one that really does contain a whole new order inside of itself. I could happily spend a lot of desert-island hours tracking other bands' inspirations and origins into the depths of Loveless, and following unexplored implications back out again.
Not Drowning, Waving: Tabaran
I have blown past a lot of astonishingly great music in the last decade, and not always had the alacrity to recognize the difference between collecting and appreciating it while the two were straying apart. It's usually pretty obvious in retrospect, though. One of the lines I'm most excited to retrace is the one that begins with NDW and continues through My Friend the Chocolate Cake and David Bridie's soundtrack and solo work, as I'm massively certain that among all those records only the perfect NDW love-song "Spark" has yet come close to fulfilling its potential in my life. I don't really pretend I even know which records will be the most rewarding to revisit, but the one I've felt the most naggingly remiss about neglecting is this one, NDW's Papua New Guinean answer and possibly rejoinder to the ethno-tourism of Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints.
The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Velvet Underground & Nico
The older I get, the less impishly endearing I think it is to methodically ignore all music made before I was conscious of it. In the last few years I've begun slowly making token amends for my earlier arbitrary exclusions, even occasionally spending some time on records that I would have said I disliked. I think I would have insisted, right up until the first time I played this record for myself all the way through, that VU belonged with Dylan in my book, much better covered than in the original. At least when Nico was around, though, that turns out to be wildly untrue. These are mesmerizing performances of historic songs, and I'm looking forward to the slow process of retrofitting them into the places in my personal music-history that other people's versions have been holding.
Thin Lizzy: Black Rose
As a shopper, I was well ahead of the Thin Lizzy revival, filling out my back catalog several years ago after noticing how often I found myself needing to hear something from Jailbreak. As a listener I can't claim as much prescience. Most of the albums got played twice as then shelved in anticipation of hypothetical future leisure. Now that it's the future, the one I'm most particularly eager to relearn is Phil Lynott and Gary Moore's grand showpiece of guitar roar, bass rumble and Celtic legend.
Suran Song in Stag: Kitty Igloo & the Plastic Stereo
I've only listened to this twice, but my provisional hypothesis is already that Suran Song in Stag have managed to upstage the seething Gang of Four covers on their last album by the hugely unlikely expedient of making a better new Gang of Four record than Gang of Four ever did or will, and rubbing the triumph in by basically using only voice, drums and a single bass to do it. If I play this twice more and decide I'm wrong, I suppose I'll be sad I wasted the island time on it, but I'd be far angrier about getting exiled without having a chance to find out.
Radiohead: Hail to the Thief
Radiohead have become the exemplars, in my internal quick-reference vocabulary, of a particular kind of aesthetic and moral laziness, pandering to what you know to be your audience's expectations. In the past I have sometimes been able to transfuse my way through my initial resistance to Radiohead albums, but not in any programmatic or easily replicable fashion. So I can't be sure that there isn't a way through my violent aversion to Hail to the Thief, too. If we were stranded on a desert island together for long enough, maybe I'd find it. Whether anything short of that will make me try, though, I don't know.
Low: A Lifetime of Temporary Relief
Examining your experience of music changes it. Tautologically, of course, it enhances your experience of music that rewards examination. Conversely, I doubt I'd hate Radiohead half as much if I weren't keeping track. Done right, though, close attention opens you to music that requires scrutiny and undivided focus. Probably nothing charts and encapsulates my decade of examined listening, and the nuances of the tension between music and silence for which "war" is such a fabulously inapt word, better than the unpreplanned episodic chronicle of my increasingly reverent devotion to the peerless anti-power-trio Low. And not even in dreams could I have hoped for a more appropriate coincidental farewell present than this dumbfoundingly lavish compendium of the breathtaking ephemera and marginalia and scattered souls of Low's ten years alongside mine. There are demos gossamer enough to make The Trinity Session sound like Pet Sounds, concert recordings unintelligible enough that unlisting them was probably the only option, b-sides indelible enough to make me forget this isn't an a career anthology, and covers jabbingly surreal enough to remind me. A week before the end, it feels to me like every hour of lost sleep I have poured into music, this one small box has returned to me as shining grace. I am awake, now, and ready.