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14th March 2016

Record Reappraisal: Arthur Russell – World of Echo

Much of Arthur Russell’s work may not command the listener’s attention, but it certainly deserves it

Released 1986 via Upside Records

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with Arthur Russell for around two weeks now and as a person he’s still an almost total mystery to me, as he was to most of the people that knew him. A musical force unto himself hailing from the corn fields of Iowa, he went through multiple musical mutations and contortions throughout his career, never settling or conforming to any one in particular. Flitting from minimalist swirling compositions birthed in the New York avant-garde performance space The Kitchen during the early 70s, to strange unsettled disco tracks seemingly dreamt up on some far away planet, his songs always have a truly lovely draw to them as if they’re something not quite of this world. In short, there’s something utterly different about Arthur Russell.

Russell was an infamous perfectionist: never being quite satisfied with what he’d produced, constantly tweaking it, altering it. Some of his friends believed he found more satisfaction in the immediate act of creating music rather than actually finishing it, and indeed this quality led to many of his collaborations ending in disaster. Despite recording reels and reels of music during his lifetime, Russell only ever released one album, World of Echo, which came out in 1986, six years before he lost his life to AIDS.

Composed largely on the cello, World of Echo is an incredible piece of work. I’m not sure what genre you could place it in other than ‘experimental’, but that seems like both a cop out and a misleading description. While it could not be described as dance music, it bears the marks of his complex musical past with disco and proto-house. Indeed alternate versions of many of the songs on this album (such as ‘Wax the Van’ and ‘Let’s Go Swimming’) can be found on posthumous releases, replete with synth drenched beats. In a way a few of the tracks, such as the opening ‘Tone Bone Kone’ or penultimate ‘Canvas Home’, sound like disembodied dance tracks tracing a rhythm not quite heard but implied, while strange electronic rim shots have a tendency to ricochet out of the belly of a song quite unexpectedly.

No song on World of Echo is straightforward. ‘Answers Me’ is the closest you’ll get to a conventional piece of music. It’s a slow burning song about time wasted, the auditory equivalent of a flickering candle, and incidentally is the song through which I discovered Russell after it was sampled on Kanye’s ‘30 Hours’ (love him or hate him, he’s definitely good for something). However, most of the album floats past you with Russell’s cello guiding its path: mostly gentle but sometimes displaying flashes of intensity, while over the top loom the soft haunting sounds of Russell’s Nick Drake-esque vocals. His lyrics are simple, repetitive and occasionally indecipherable, drenched in echo (as the album’s title implies) but offering a definite poetry.

It is true that many of the songs in this section of Russell’s catalogue may not necessarily command the listener’s attention, but most of them deserve it. The second track on the album, ‘Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See’, is one the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time. The gentle ebb and flow of Russell’s strings pull at you as he plucks out a holy rhythm over the bottom and lilts a strange lullaby in hushed tones which emerges through the various melodies which tumble from the piece before drifting away. It’s a song indicative of the album as a whole, constantly shifting focus and form but somehow offering cohesion, like a wisp of smoke.

The album ends on the heart wrenchingly sweet ‘Our Last Night Together’, a joyfully melancholic tune about strained love, and the difficulty of saying goodbye. However, as is the way with all of Arthur Russell’s music, while the album ends, you feel it never quite finishes. That’s not to say this unfinished work is anything close to unsatisfying.  In fact it is quite a comfort to imagine this alien record continuing its interdimensional orbit of style and genre among the stars unheard.

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