The Unclassifiable, Unending Cascade of Arthur Russell’s Music

Russell made club tracks, orchestral music, and songs that sounded like Jimi Hendrix ballads for distorted cello. He was too gentle to be difficult, too serious to be pop, and too prolific to pick a lane.

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of 40, he had put out a fluid album of improvisational dance music, two albums of orchestral work, a clutch of club tracks under the names Loose Joints and Dinosaur L—still played today—and an album of very quiet singing. If there had never been another Russell release, his spot in New York City history would have been safe. 

It would have been impossible to place Russell in any known cohort then, as it is now. His orchestral music is astonishing but it isn’t particularly difficult or complex. For instance, 1983’s Tower of Meaning is a series of slow-moving figures for strings and horns that use no counterpoint or polyrhythms; it’s a sequence of harmonic clouds. Instrumentals is sort of a soft rock version of the same thing (emphasis on sort of). Russell’s dance tracks like “Go Bang!” and “Kiss Me Again” were always the odd man out, even when they were popular. One song had an unusual amount of cello, another more yelling than normal. And 1986’s World of Echo, an album of voice and cello songs, still doesn’t sound like anything else. Jimi Hendrix ballads for distorted strings? A cellist singing lullabies to himself?

Russell was too gentle to be difficult, too serious to be pop, and too prolific to pick a lane. Even as he suffered the effects of AIDS in his final years, he kept writing and recording. After his death, his partner Tom Lee and musician Mikel Rouse sifted through hundreds of tapes and gave a selection of them to producer Don Christenesen. What they worked on was issued as Another Thought in 1993, originally on Philip Glass’s Point Music label. Since then, the lion’s share of Russell music has been issued (or reissued) by Steve Knutson, the founder of Audika Records as well as the custodian and archivist of Russell’s musical archive along Lee. Last year, Chris Stevenson of Be With Records consulted with Knutson and Russell’s estate to create a newly mastered CD and vinyl version of Another Thought. It’s a major development. 

“Arthur had been in conversations with Philip Glass before he died about doing a project, but Arthur was very ill at the time,” Knutson told me. “Shortly after Arthur’s death, Philip got in touch with Tom about putting a project together. According to Tom, Another Thought was primarily driven by Allen Ginsberg, who was close friends with Philip, as well as Tom and Arthur. While Arthur was dying, Allen would help Tom look after him.”

Christensen did significant post-production editing and mixing on the songs, subtracting parts when necessary. “Of any Arthur project that has been released either during his lifetime or after, it’s the most worked over,” Knutson told me. “I don’t say that as a negative. I’ve heard many of the original tracks that Don worked on. He removed lots of instruments and really worked with the sound. Don did a phenomenal job.”

Another Thought is my favorite Arthur Russell record, the one that helped me understand the artist I had been following for a few years without any real focus or comprehension. The music that has come out in the decades since Russell’s death is a veritable cascade, almost all of it worth buying. (Treat yourself to an early Christmas and go nuts on Audika’s Bandcamp page.) What there has been more of than anything else, as new Russell material has emerged, is songs. Songs, it turns out, are how he worked out his methods and ideas. Another Thought was the first time the estate was able to select from the Russell archive and the combination of Christensen’s production taste (generally minimal and subtle) and the selection was genuinely wild. Twenty-nine years later, it remains just that. 

Russell’s singing and playing seems hesitant at first, and then maybe soft, and then after a while, it seems like neither. Russell was just an absolute demon with dynamic shifts and tonal thoughts, and playing at middle volume allowed him to create and adjust the tiniest differences. There isn’t a single song here I don’t have a relationship to, but “This Is How We Walk On The Moon” is its own world. The cello figure Russell plays hops from chord to chord, and within his playing there are small hitches that make each statement within the measure slightly different. He was more orchestral with his cello and voice than he was in his orchestral works. 

Russell’s voice always sounds a bit like he’s not aware of us listening, singing to himself with a blend of his head and chest voice, never too loud. (Sometimes, recording at home after being out at the club, Russell sang quietly so as to not to wake up Lee.) His lyric seems to be about living free of gravity, which is definitely how one would experience the moon. “Every step is moving me up / One tiny, tiny, tiny move / It’s all I need.” The bounce of the bow on his cello strings and his aspirate singing feel weightless while also creating a devastating emotional pull. Russell is so compelling that I often forget that there are congas, trombone, and trumpet in here also. The freedom of the moon does not sound like a distant thing but a proximate state of mind, something the singer desperately needs.

“I just think it solidifies Arthur’s position as just a genius songwriter,” Knutson said of Another Thought. “Arthur was a wonderful vocalist, which he doesn’t get recognized for enough. I love his voice. He worked incessantly and sometimes he got to a place where it was all just effortless. You can hear that here.”

One book that’s helped me figure out the nature of Russell’s slippery magic is Matt Marble’s Buddhist Bubblegum. Marble has a bachelor’s in speech and hearing science, as well as a PhD in music composition. “I’ve always been mystically inclined,” he told me. Marble’s father was an Episcopal Bishop in Mississippi and North Carolina. After hearing Russell’s music, Marble started transcribing the melodies of World of Echo in his free time. After reading Tim Lawrence’s Hold On To Your Dreams, a biography of Russell, he decided to go further. 

“I had all these questions that were all related to Buddhism and to the spiritual thread I felt running through the songs,” Marble told me. “I contacted Steve, and as soon as I went to the archive and saw all of this Buddhist material, I knew what I had to do.”

Marble dives deep into the ways of Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as “esoteric Buddhism,” and explains how the practices of meditation and composition were linked through Buddhism for Russell.  

“I’m drawn to the term esotericism, which etymologically means the ‘most interior,’” Marble said. “It has connotations of secret societies but I see it as being more vitally about our inner experience.”

Buddhist Bubblegum tells the story of Russell’s path as a student and practitioner of Buddhism, a role he played in his own specific way.

“I went back and looked through some of the lyrics for Another Thought, and ‘Home Away from Home’ stood out,” Marble said. “I feel like Arthur is talking to the listener, guiding them through basic meditative practices. While open to interpretation, the title may allude to the Vajrayana deity realm. One of the lyrics is ‘by looking up, when you need to know, you will see that from looking up, you will be able to do it again.’ He’s saying that by engaging yourself in this practice, you’ll be able to do it more and more naturally.”

At several of the book events for Buddhist Bubblegum, audience members asked Marble about Russell’s meditation practice, or some subtle variation of “How Buddhist was Russell really?”

“That question is diluting the point, which is that his music was his practice,” Marble said. “He did it essentially nonstop, up until he couldn’t do it anymore. It was intensely devotional.”

“There’s not a lot of audio interviews, but there’s one where Arthur catches himself saying that he’s having fun while making music,” Marble said. “And he corrects himself—‘it’s not for fun, I’m supposed to be working.’ I just love that. He is having fun and it’s serious work. He was always conscious of such polarities.” The Unclassifiable, Unending Cascade of Arthur Russell’s Music