The world lost Arthur Russell 25 years ago, at a time when very few outside of New York City had ever heard of him. The most revolutionary cellist of all time, Russell was a many-armed Shiva whose reach extended from avant-garde composition to disco, from new wave to folk, before he tragically lost his life to AIDS in 1992.
This was a guy who hung out with Philip Glass, provided accompaniment on Allen Ginsberg’s spoken word recordings, played cello on a B-side version of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” lit up disco clubs with legendary DJ Walter Gibbons, and even produced hip hop beats for a pre-stardom Vin Diesel.
Russell’s restlessness also extended to his inability to complete songs— despite leaving behind thousands of unreleased tapes, he only released one solo album in his lifetime. Thankfully, some of Russell’s friends founded a label, Audika Records, around 15 years ago, and ushered in a new era of notoriety for him with several posthumous compilations. Across these scattered, numerous releases, multiple versions of songs appear, making Russell’s art seem even more elusive and playful. Here, we’ve rounded up five essential releases to give a brief overview of his substantial oeuvre.
Outside of avant-garde/classical composition Tower Of Meaning, which was released in an edition of 320 copies on a boutique label in 1983, World Of Echo was the only full-length that Arthur Russell ever released in his lifetime. On it, he’s the only credited performer, using only cello, vocals, hand percussion, and “echo” across 70 minutes and 18 tracks. The result is a minimal, but constantly shape-shifting sound, seemingly impenetrable at first blush but eventually both soothing and disorienting, something like fellow gentle baritone Nick Drake recording a dub album. In its contrast of idiosyncratic sound design and clear-eyed songwriting, World Of Echo is the Dead Sea Scroll for any artist looking to straddle the realms of pop and the experimental.
The first of the aforementioned wave of reissues was actually released by a different label, Soul Jazz, that specializes in obscure dance music reissues. Fittingly then, The World of Arthur Russell mostly focuses on his disco cuts, many recorded with makeshift, short-lived groups like Loose Joints, Dinosaur L, Lola, and Indian Ocean, or remixed by DJs like Walter Gibbons and Larry Levan. Despite the four-on-the-floor beats and sexed-up vocals, these songs still palpably reflect Russell’s experimental impulses with their meandering structures, unorthodox instrumentation, and of course, the presence of a cello in the mix. Hiding amid all of the astral funk are two of Russell’s sweetest minimalist pop constructions, “Keeping Up” and “A Little Lost,” proving that even the most laser-focused Russell compilation can’t contain his eclecticism.
Whereas the bulk of Russell’s post-disco work had little to do with the prevailing sounds and styles of his contemporaries, the material that makes up Calling Out of Context is very much in line with the new wave and post-punk that was popular at the time of its creation in 1985. The compilation is largely culled from sessions for Corn, a planned album that never saw the light of day until 2015, when some demos were scrapped together to form an intriguing-but-imperfect, Smile-style consolation. I prefer this more freeform compilation, as it’s a rare chance to hear Russell conform his impulses to straightforward synthpop beats like a prodigious child playing with his friends’ LEGO blocks. The album also features “That’s Us/Wild Combination,” a wide-eyed love song in the vein of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” that’s among the five or so absolutely perfect pop songs Russell ever wrote.
First Thought, Best Thought (2006)
The rare Russell compilation that you can call “definitive,” the two-disc First Thought, Best Thought contains all of the avant-garde/neoclassical Russell compositions that you’ll ever need. It begins with his two-volume “Instrumentals” series, the first a shockingly catchy exploration of baroque pop, and the second a more challenging, beatless movement of strings and horns that achieves Zen-like calm via inventive harmonies. The pieces “Reach One,” “Tower Of Meaning,” and “Sketch for the Face of Helen” follow, burrowing further down the rabbit hole of minimal, modernist composition, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the work of Russell’s more conservatory-friendly peers like Philip Glass, Rhys Chatham, or Steve Reich.
Trickling out at the tail end of Audika’s most fruitful period of reissues, this album might contain the most unorthodox of Russell’s material, by virtue of that material being the most orthodox music he ever recorded. One need not look further than the cowboy hat he’s wearing on the cover and the gently-strummed opening seconds of first track “Close My Eyes” to realize that we’re not in Russell’s Kansas anymore. We’re actually closer to the actual Kansas, with descriptions of cornfields, a cover of the traditional “Goodbye Old Paint,” and harmonica gracing the rolling country number “Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart.” As the album progresses, we move back closer to Russell’s weirdo electropop, but it’s still spliced with heartland sounds, most stunningly on the bouncy, Rhodes and slide guitar-led pop ditty “Habit Of You.” Love is Overtaking Me is not only a reminder of Russell’s lifelong fascination with his childhood in Iowa, it’s proof that he was a genius at merging Manhattan’s highbrow with Greater America’s populism, and experimental music’s cerebralism with pop music’s pure joy.