The Invisible Man

9.8.2008

By Michael Martin

Steve Knutson, the owner of Audika Records, became obsessed with Russell after being given a copy of his dance track 'Treehouse/Schoolbell.' He has spent three years editing nine hours of material into the 21 songs on the one-hour album. The deteriorating quarter-inch reels had to be baked in a convection oven before being digitally remastered, to fuse the information to the tape. 'Arthur absolutely wanted to be popular in his lifetime,' says Knutson. 'But he didn't have the faculties to be that kind of person. It's one thing to be a brilliant songwriter; it's another to play the game and market yourself. Till the late '80s and early '90s, those were ugly words.'

He plays the album, which reveals a new side to Russell -- his adeptness with pop and folk is pretty stunning; his voice shimmers, reminiscent of Beck's Sea Change album and James Taylor. The material ranges from the early 1970s, when Russell was at music school in California, to the 1990s, when he was gravely ill at home. 'Goodbye Old Paint' is an old public-domain cowboy ballad that Russell set to tabla and folk guitar. 'He's like 20 years old, and he's mixing all these things together that shouldn't go together, but somehow they work. It's a preview of what's to come.' One country song is a demo Russell sent to Randy Travis, on whom he had a crush (Travis didn't respond).'Oh Fernanda Why' is a favorite of Jens Lekman's. 'Habit of You' is an upbeat love song that plinks along on a child's keyboard and samples of birds chirping and sounds like a Talking Heads B side from 1984. It's a terrific song, too weird and not poppy enough for its era, but today, it sounds perfect.

I tell this to Knutson, and his eyes tear up. 'Arthur would have hated all of this,' he says. 'He was a contrarian by nature and kind of a control freak, so the idea of anyone putting out his music who wasn't him would have driven him crazy.' He laughs. 'But he's probably madder at Tom.'

If Russell wasn't made for his times, he was certainly made for ours. Prompted by the release in 2004 of two collections, Calling Out of Context and The World of Arthur Russell, a full-scale renaissance is in progress. He's been subject to handsome reappraisals by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker and Andy Battaglia on Slate.com. More releases have followed, including the reissue of 1994's out-of-print Another Thought, the double album of instrumentals First Thought Best Thought, and Four Songs by Arthur Russell, an EP of covers by artists including Lekman, the Swedish romanticist, and Joel Gibb of queer Toronto group Hidden Cameras.

'Because of downloading, it's now absolutely regular for a person to describe their taste as being eclectic,' says Lawrence. 'Arthur provides a route to the overwhelming mass of musical information available. We're now much more open to listening to new music as well as to music that cuts across and even nestles between genres. In this respect, Arthur was always ahead of his time, and now his time has come.'

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