"Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs," Edited by Phil Freeman. Da Capo Press, 2007, 330 pages, $16.95.
It's the eternal mental parlor game: If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring just one - fill in the blank - with you, what would it be? Da Capo Press has published "Marooned," an anthology of rock journalism in which authors choose their desert island album and explain their reasoning. The choices range from the familiar ("The Cars" by Cars, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John) to the obscure (Various Artists, "History of Our World Part 1: Breakbeat and Jungle Ultramix by DJ DB"). Vineyard resident and music critic Scott Seward (Village Voice, Decibel Magazine) contributes a chapter in which he selects Divine Styler's "Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light Giant."
Never heard of Divine Styler? Most haven't, yet by blending journalism, sociological musings, and autobiographical sketches, Seward draws the reader into the intricacies of the album. We learn that Styler is an avante garde rap protégé of Ice-T, and that he has released only three albums since 1989. He fuses funk, hip-hop, and Islamic references into his work. Through Seward's descriptions of the tracks "Touch," "In A World Of U" and "Grey Matter," "Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light Giant" comes into focus as a sprawling, disjointed, and brilliant work. Much of this is due to Seward's crack prose, inlaid with phrases like "word strings falling like liquid silver onto the heads of like-minded seekers of caves and mountaintops" or "the acid-inflected snake-charm guitars do their dance." This deft wordplay turns inwards, as Mr. Seward candidly chronicles his personal failures and emotional fragility. Describing his sibling relationship, he says, "As a kid I hated my brother with a passion, even though we were both miserable drug-swallowing dirt bags who shared a lot of the same interests." His description of "the Zen of pea stacking" is a brilliant retelling of working the night shift at a local supermarket and the clarity he found through monotony.
In the passages where Mr. Seward describes his life on Martha's Vineyard, he shares his ambivalence about living amidst serenity when he craves stimulation.
"There are times when I'd gladly trade in the soothing lap of the tide or a gorgeous sunset for some Indian food or a used record store to browse in," he says. "While what most people prize about the sand and surf life are the peace, quiet, and gentle rhythms, I find that I crave a fairly steady barrage of elements not easily found in Shangri-La." At the end of the piece, he describes listening to his wife and sons playing in the backyard and writes, "I can hear the crows as they shred my last nerve with their incessant cawing. Jesus, I'm bored. Islands are for the birds. Literally. Don't ask me how we ended up here. It's a long story."
What makes Seward's contribution to the book stand out is his mix of musical insight and self-deprecating wit. To say he's excellent understates the case; his writing blows most rock journalism off the page. If you haven't pondered the desert island question, you will after reading Mr. Seward and the other writers' choices. My own? Radiohead's "Pablo Honey," a beautiful, discordant symphony of pop brilliance from 1994, before the band's music dissolved into artistic pretense.
Julian Wise is a contributing writer to The Times.