Unearthing the lost art of Arthur Russell

The legacy of experimental composer Arthur Russell and the ethics of posthumous releases.


Courtesy of the New Yorker

Arthur Russell’s music is a hidden gem, writes James Watson.

James Watson, Staff Writer

The Village Voice obituary read, “He simply vanished into his music.” Arthur Russell passed away at the age of 40 on April 4, 1992, and apart from the principal members of the New York underground, few cared. He left behind a musical mausoleum: 166 linear feet of tapes and papers residing in the New York Public Library — the analog remains of a man and his cello — a life spent restlessly experimenting, pursuing reinvention and chasing fame.
For Russell and his art, however, death was not the end, but the beginning of a new life.
Though he only released one album in his tragically short life, Russell’s varied, endlessly creative body of work has garnered an almost cult following in the past decade thanks to posthumous releases. With these archival compilations, folks have rightly begun to conclude what many of his peers did decades prior — Russell was a genius.
Born Charles Arthur Russell Jr. in Oskaloosa Iowa, he was desperate to shake the confines of rural America and chart his own path as a bonafide artist. Russell’s move to San Francisco in the late sixties netted his first major connection: Allen Ginsberg. The angelheaded hipster was Russell’s avenue into the avant-garde, shaping his trajectory as a classically trained cellist-based experimentalist. Ginsberg would later refer to his star pupil’s music as “Buddhist Bubblegum”. Like any champion of bold, exciting art, Russell found himself in New York City only a few years later. His impact can be found throughout the music of lower Manhattan during the 70s and 80s. He first gained acclaim for his deep involvement in the dance scene of the time, producing hits like Loose Joints’ “Is it All Over My Face?” and Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!”. Russell also wandered into the avenues of New Wave, appearing as a contributor on an early version of the seminal Talking Heads song “Psycho Killer”. It is ironic then that, despite his notable influence in and around the thriving New York art scene, he is all but unremembered. Without his solo efforts, Russell would be nothing but a mythological specter whose existence can only be traced back to the grooves and scratches of those albums and 45s he produced.
Perhaps the greatest misconception about artists like Arthur Russell or The Velvet Underground is that their forward-looking, non-mainstream leanings meant they didn’t want some element of commercial fame — when in reality they did (see the rest of The Velvet’s catalog after John Cale’s exit, for example). Russell truly wanted fame. He wanted to make it big — and had nearly every opportunity to do so. Russell lined up major label recording sessions and auditions that were all fruitless due to his creative discontent and micro-managerial engineering. He was an insecure perfectionist, and it cost him in the industry. That’s why so little of his art ever saw the light of day while he was living. But ironically, perfectionism is precisely why Russell’s music soars.
“World of Echo”, Arthur Russell’s only album released while he was alive, is his most iconoclastic and revelatory work. A dark, introspective, minimalist meditation — Russell contorts his cello into breathtaking passages of experimentalism. Songs like “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” demonstrate Russell’s relentless toying with song structure, flowing between cohesion and fragmentation. It is a quiet, sometimes violent barrage of abstract noise — and it’s really quite spiritual. It is the sound of a man being in complete and total control of his artistry. He has unobstructed power over the force of his bow, the modulation of his voice, his distance from the microphone and the effects twisting and mutating the strings of his cello. It is pure mastery — a record that is totally, ultimately Arthur Russell. The sonic documentation of a revolutionary genius. But for all of his technical pioneering, he was deeply indebted to pop sensibilities. This side of Russell went all but unknown until a few years ago.

Sadly, Russell passed away in 1992 due to complications from AIDS. He left behind his partner, Tom Lee, along with a mountain of experiments and songs. Whether as a means of coping with the incalculable pain of losing a romantic partner or a noble desire to see his music released, Lee began loosely organizing the music and releasing posthumous compilations. Beginning with “Another Thought” in 1993, these releases have been an unbelievable gift — treasure troves of incredible art that double as introspective visions of a revolutionary’s process. Country/folk, minimalist, new-wave, pop, shoegaze, chamber-pop, experimental, electronic and disco are all represented through this posthumous body of work. My personal favorite release is “Calling out of Context”, an exciting, unique work of dance and electronic music that features arguably the most popular of Russell’s songs, “That’s Us/Wild Combination” (a strong contender for my favorite song of all time). But the sprawling, singer/songwriter-focused compilation “Love is Overtaking Me” is equally important thanks to its chronological documentation of Russell’s brief career, ending with the devastating “Love Comes Back” — the last he recorded.
Though Russell’s art has yet to find its justified mainstream foothold, his influence is pervasive — and growing — in certain music circles. Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), Frank Ocean, Sufjan Stevens, James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), James Blake and Kanye West are all Russell devotees. West went so far as to prominently sample Russell’s “Answers Me” on the 2016 track, “30 Hours”.
Only through posthumous album releases has Arthur Russell’s art found new life. But is this practice entirely ethical? What makes posthumous albums critical documents rather than cheap cash-ins? In Russell’s case, it’s quite obviously the former, given the releaser’s intent and relationship with the artist, but it is worth examining this practice as a whole. When rapper Pop Smoke’s label released a second posthumous album after his murder in 2020, Pitchfork said “it’s solely designed to generate clicks…”. Posthumous music from the likes of XXX Tentacion and Juice WRLD has been met with similar criticism. If the artists have no final oversight over the music they release, is it really theirs? Would Russell, with his obsessive fine-tuning, have been comfortable with these albums? It’s impossible to know. But I think it’s reasonable to be simultaneously thankful for having this music and cautious about the ethics. At least in Russell’s case, these releases have been treated with the respect and dignity the genius “Wonder Boy” from Iowa deserved. It’s the happy ending he was always chasing.