Music writing with a personal twist by an assortment of modern writers, including Joshua Ferris, James Wood, Pankaj Mishra and Kate Christensen.
It’s a testament to editor Terzian that only a handful of the essays involve falling in love. The tales encapsulate everything from horror to hilarity, ranging in approach from an almost academic inquiry into hidden codes and contradictions to deeply emotional recollections presented in a stream-of-consciousness collage. Thankfully, little of the writing resembles the cloying cleverness of modern music reviews. Another delightful surprise is that the albums aren’t defended as the best of or most important to the development of music, but as the most significant to a certain person at a precise moment in time. A good example is the essay on the Eurythmics album Savage, which Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) dismisses as musically subpar, but for which he still nurses a strong passion. Despite the diversity of backgrounds of the contributors, some common threads emerge. Many describe listening during the tumultuous period of adolescence, ricocheting between self hatred and self discovery. All are uniquely sensitive observers, and most shared a penchant for listening compulsively and repeatedly to that one cherished record. It’s somewhat regrettable that most of the music, with a few notable exceptions, comes from a limited era, the 1970s and ’80s. One memorable outlier is the ethereal and haunting chapter on American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897 –1939) by GQ correspondent John Jeremiah Sullivan (Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, 2004), which describes extremely rare shellac recordings of largely unknown black musicians before World War II. The book is undeniably best appreciated with a laptop close by to listen along with the albums described.
A satisfying, fun read that may prompt rifling through old CDs and LPs to reclaim one’s own transformative musical memories.