Arthur Russell's 20 Greatest Songs

Rough Trade Records

March 22nd, 2024


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“I seem to barely scratch the surface of Arthur Russell’s creativity…I really think he belongs in the canon, in the pantheon, in a small-sweaty-packed-out club, in a room alone with your headphones on. His music is for everyone despite its avant-garde connotations.”

Words by Mathilde Bataille.

An odyssey of music genres. Reflecting on the genius of Arthur Russell opens doors upon doors, the cellist and avant-garde composer truly broke down barriers between classical music and the dancefloor, a student of contemporary composition and Indian classical music who later performed new wave, voice-cello dub, folk, art pop and disco, producing a string of hit dance singles and underground club cuts.

Delving into Arthur Russell‘s mind-blowing eclecticism is an inspiring and uplifting endeavour, and we greatly look forward to the opportunity to better understand his mysterious works with Richard King‘s biography: Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, out 16th April 2024. This landmark publication will curate the ephemera and documentation found in both Arthur’s and other private archives, featuring hand-written scores, lyrics, photos, letters drawings and original interviews with Arthur’s collaborators, contemporaries, family and friends.

Mathilde!

In anticipation of the new and definitive biography, Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, musician and Rough Trade staffer Mathilde Bataille shares her personal highlights of Arthur Russell’s distinctive discography…


Phillip Glass, David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg walk into a bar…ok, I don’t have a punchline for this one, only the fact that they were all lucky enough to have worked with the genre-defying producer, composer, cellist and Buddhist Arthur Russell. 

Arthur Russell’s music is an endless discovery. My list will be completely different from someone else’s list and that’s what entices me to his music. From avant-pop to post-disco, classical minimalism to chamber noise, making music for theatrical performances and gay clubs, you can return back to hear something new each time. Whether you’re a rookie or an avid fan, here are some recommendations and my (unqualified) takes. In no particular order…


Love is Overtaking Me

Love is Overtaking Me

The title track of the eponymous compilation merges steel string guitar rhythms with four-to-the-floor beats, tabla-inspired percussion along with drum machines and bursts of Arthur Russell’s belting voice declaring his love for someone, the all-encompassing feeling of desire. A hopeful and romantic track that merges all the different styles he worked with throughout his career. 

Wonder Boy

Iowa Dreams

“I’m a wonder boy / I can do nothing”.

It’s definitely hard to have favourites when it comes to Arthur’s music but the compilation Iowa Dreams is a beautiful collection of Russell’s diligent songwriting. It partly showcases these captivating piano-based songs that have become some of my favourites of his work. The opener Wonder Boy is a stark meditation of wandering thoughts with a minimal arrangement that drapes across it like dust motes. It shifts from major to minor chords and creates this subdued melancholic feeling as the narrative follows descriptive landscapes whilst contemplating one’s relationship to the outside. The vastness of the world, woods, rivers, a poster stuck on a tree torn down by someone and Arthur walking along, maybe a bit lost.

Iowa Dreams

This is Arthur Russell in full New York mode. A no-wave number that sits somewhere between Talking Heads and The Velvet Underground. It’s joyous to listen to Arthur on this one, he playfully performs his stream of conscious narrative – often breaking the fourth wall in a teasing fashion, stuttering around driving drums, blasting saxophones and call and response voices that act like extended voices from his head. You can really feel each musician in the room and hear the pages of sheet music turn. Just makes it more real, you’re instantly transported.

Telling No One

Picture of Bunny Rabbit

There’s a lovely phrase that’s used to describe Arthur’s music that really encapsulates this track: “strength in shyness”. Beautifully sparse and timid with tenderness like meeting a stare from across the room.

Is It All Over My Face

Pop Your Funk – Complete Singles Collection

It’s a humid hot night in South London, Goldsmiths art students have just finished their final year degree shows and are congregating at Venue MOT. And let me tell you when you’re in a sweaty club with recent art grads on pingers and the DJ cues Arthur Russell, it gets silly good.

Get Around To It

Calling Out of Context

A classic. Post-disco, sexy and undeniably groovy. Arthur had a few pseudonyms which he would use to experiment with different sounds in New York’s avant-pop and disco scene. Whether it was under the name Loose Joints or Dinosaur L, he found a huge source of inspiration in dance music. Who else can make a cello sound like slap bass? Exquisite.

Go Bang #5

24->24 Music

A multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter and curator, Arthur also set up his own label Sleeping Bag Records with Will Socolov. The first release on his label was Go Bang. Featuring the yells of revolutionary avant-garde composer (and Arthur’s contemporary) Julius Eastman. It’s a total wonky disco number which became an underground hit in the downtown New York scene and was played at the queer clubs of its time like the Paradise Garage or The Loft. There’s a great section of Richard King’s book Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, a Life that shares different anecdotes of people hearing this song across the city. It goes to show Arthur’s music really moved people emotionally and physically.

“Instrumentals” Vol. 1, Pt. 1

First Thought, Best Thought

In his late teens, Arthur had escaped his small town in Iowa in search of something greater. He moved to San Francisco and joined a Buddhist commune. This spiritual enlightening played a great role in Arthur’s life, it was something he practised rigorously and is explicitly heard in his music. Arthur’s Buddhist teacher had gifted him a series of landscape photos that inspired Instrumentals. The fluidity of the song and its adaptability to mood and movement is a transcending experience, you really get the sense in this recording that each player was connected with the music and to each other. Trés Buddhist if you ask me.

Tower of Meaning III: Tower of Meaning

Give It to the Sky: Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning Expanded

Arthur had been the music director at The Kitchen, a venue in New York’s Soho which saw the likes of Beastie Boys and John Cage pass through. It was a space for experimental art to be performed in, Cafe OTO on steroids. Arthur had studied at Columbia’s Manhattan School of Music too, and whilst living in New York during the 70s and 80s he was a bright light in the burgeoning avant-garde classical scene. 

Last summer I got to see Apartment House perform the entirety of Tower of Meaning. It was one of the best gigs I’ve seen. There’s just something about the unison of woodwinds, horns and strings. How they hold on to these notes that are so charged with emotion and anticipation. It’s a total Arthur Russell staple, genius in its simplicity, in the unsaid, each note a passing thought. Also worth noting that Phillip Glass released this work on vinyl with Julius Eastman conducting the recording performance. If anyone has one of those pressings that they would want to give away to me I’d be eternally grateful and my staff discount will be forever indebted to you.

I Never Get Lonesome

Iowa Dreams

A sweet little country number. This would be my Arthur Russell Karaoke song.

I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face

Love is Overtaking Me

I had been recording a project of mine and was starting to feel a bit burnt out, self-conscious of what I was making and exhausted from playing too many gigs. It was one of those moments where I had my headphones on but was listening to nothing, just walking back from the studio, a bit cold and tired. Something must have triggered my phone in my pocket for this song to suddenly come on out of nowhere. It’s bittersweet yet warming, a goodbye without it being final. It’s simple and comforting and I couldn’t help but think Arthur knew about the feeling I was experiencing and still he continued to sing and create anyway. It’s still one of my go-to’s. In any conversation I have with friends when we talk about Arthur Russell’s music, someone will always sing the opening line of this track and immediately receive a chorus back.

In Love With You for the Last Time

Iowa Dreams

The closing track of Iowa Dreams It’s maybe his most vulnerable and saddest work. Writing all 7 stages of grief in one song, his voice accompanied by meandering piano. Heart wrenching doesn’t even cut it, it pulls through your veins and sits like a weight in the pit of your stomach. If anyone is going through heartbreak this is the song for you. Listen to it, feel it and let it pass through. 

Soon-To-Be-Innocent-Fun / Let’s See

World of Echo

World of Echo was the only album that Arthur Russell released in his lifetime. It is its own planet. Each brushstroke of the bow is processed through delays, grinding against the strings, cutting up tape takes and stripping them dramatically from effects to create bold sonic entities. The delivery of the lyrics are obscured with a slight slapback delay and barely makes it through Arthur’s mumbling lips – making it all the more enticing. Arthur flirting with his own listeners as he recites early infatuation. 

Fuzzbuster #06 

Picture of Bunny Rabbit

Taken from masters of test pressings from his archive, Fuzzbuster #06 is one of the many songs from the latest compilation Picture of Bunny Rabbit which collects World of Echo-era material. A bizarre demo that seems to centre around a driving plucky guitar riff whilst cellos orbit around panning delays like UFOs. I spent most of last summer walking around the city listening to this album, it just feels like time stops when you listen to it.

My Tiger, My Timing 

Another Thought

Muted proto-acid house undertones, layering drum machines like bodies on a dance floor moving around each other. You can totally hear Arthur playing with his club experience and adapting it to his songwriting.

Close My Eyes

Love is Overtaking Me

On what felt like the first day of spring I was at a rehearsal and my friend wanted to play this song at their gig. We spent the afternoon singing along to the choruses and playing through the Americana chords. I’m glad sharing Arthur’s music is a communal experience. It’s a song based in the corn fields in Iowa and it made its way to south London and at a venue in Bristol. 

Words of Love

Iowa Dreams

“I wish I could see what you got in your mind
That makes your eyes restless on all that they find
Don’t listen to me, I don’t know more than you
But I know that I want you but I don’t know what to do
But if I could convince you that these are words of love
The heartache would instantly remain
But the pain would be gone”

An unflinching queer love song. It’s a testament to Arthur’s writing talents, and should be placed among the greats. This one just pulls at my heartstrings.

I Kissed the Girl from Outer Space

Iowa Dreams

It’s chaotic, it’s exuberant, it’s kraut-y and most importantly it’s got a great bass line. Play this when you are heading out into the night or in the sunshine.

Lucky Cloud

World of Echo

As told in Richard King’s biography it was well known that Arthur was a perfectionist and often made different edits of songs and ideas, spending days locked in his home recording. What I like about the version on World of Echo is the warped cello lines and Arthur interrupting the song by saying “punch it” (which would be a direction to start the tape at a desired point in the track to record instantly). It just builds this vivid image of a man spending all day at home tracking, getting lost in his exploration of sounds and being obsessed with making.

That’s Us/ Wild Combination

Calling out of Context

Maybe it’s fit to end here. A joyous bouncy track where love feels like an endless drive with Arthur’s voice guiding us through, carefree and celestial.


Richard King – Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life

Signed by Richard King. Includes an exclusive reproduction flyer designed and screenprinted by Tom Lee, Arthur’s partner.

BUY NOW

I couldn’t have written this without having read the latest Arthur Russell biography. For many who are fans of Arthur Russell there’s this sense of affinity to him and his music. The mystery behind his shadowed sonics and his short-lived life only draws you closer to him. It was truly about time there was a biography on him and his legacy. Tracing his young years in Iowa to his last remaining days before his early death to AIDs, King writes a truly moving tribute, collecting interviews from Arthur’s partner Tom Lee, his sisters, the musicians who played with him, friends and label directors.

What really moved me about this biography was the archival material that King sourced. It allows Arthur’s own story to be told from his perspective, which is a really special asset to this book. Throughout, the book features an abundance of hand-written lyrics, diary entries, letters to friends along with photos taken across his life: in the studio, at gigs and around New York. For those interested in Arthur’s life, music and generally the New York scene in the late 20th century, I couldn’t recommend this book enough.

As a reader you get a keen sense of who Arthur was, one that goes beyond being a character on a page, you really understand his charm, ambition, his multi-faceted talents along with his self-doubt and anxiety.

Afterword…

I seem to barely touch the surface of Arthur Russell’s creativity. I’m constantly learning from his music and being able to share his songs with friends and strangers is the best gift. I really think he belongs in the canon, in the pantheon, in a small-sweaty-packed-out club, in a room alone with your headphones on. His music is for everyone despite its avant-garde connotations. The fact that there are thousands of tapes still yet to be curated and released only makes me more excited to discover his mind further and to share it with others.

Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell

Faber launch Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell at the Barbican in London on 25th May with a performance from Lucinda Chua with Speakers Corner Quartet. A special tribute honouring Arthur’s pioneering body of work and a unique chance to see his unique creations brought to life.

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