Breezy brilliance from casual genius
FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Arthur Russell’s ‘Love Is Overtaking Me‘ compiles previously unreleased material from the critically regarded but somehow commercially overlooked artist’s archive. Ranging from Dylanesque folk, country and angular art pop from the 1970s through his final home recordings before death in 1991, the album provides a fascinating portrait of a restless innovator and songwriter whose journey reflects two generations of musical transformation. I don’t want to make it sound as if Russell was just a musical magpie since every style he appropriated he made his own, and the tracks on ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ are linked by a sonic playfulness, a lightness of touch and an melodic insouciance. They are are also linked in that they depict a particular side of Russell’s work, the – for lack of a better expression – singer-songwriter side (i.e., intimate, lyrical and often romantic) as opposed to his more avant-garde explorations, electronic experiments and disco (some of which released under various pseudonyms). It is also worth noting that this should not be viewed by the novice (for I am new to Russell too) as simply an outtakes and rarities collection for the hardcore fans and completists, as Russell had vast archives of unreleased materials and was known for being a pained perfectionist who could not finish anything. This is a fact belied by the music, which often has a breezy, almost casual brilliance.
Over 21 tracks there is a little, but not a lot, variation in quality; but given the brevity of songs ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ is not the mammoth collection it initially seems. Many tracks focus on Russell’s lyrical concerns: bittersweet small town narratives, everyman streams of consciousness. The little vignettes like ‘Maybe She’ are deceptively simple at first but have a delicate sadness that gradually insinuates itself. It is fashionably lo-fi, but not devoid of the electronic and art-pop touches for which Russell is perhaps more widely known. The cello – the instrument that is most commonly associated – is also present, but mainly a tool used for subtler shading on these tracks, often little more than a sombre murmur. Nick Drake is the figure that immediately comes to mind listening to the beginning of ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ – or at least an Americana tinged version of the troubled Cambridge folk singer – but had Drake lived into the 1980s it is difficult to imagine that he would have made the post-punk tinged pop of ‘Habit of You’. The chamber woodwinds at the beginning of ‘Goodbye Old Paint’, for example, recall a melancholy English folk but the singing is pitched closer to Dylan. By contrast, ‘Time Away’ could be the Velvet Underground, ‘Janine’ or ‘The Letter’ could be a wigged-out early Police, and ‘What It’s Like’ recalls Lambchop’s Memphis soul. Russell is such an eclectic figure, with such a formidable back catalogue, that some may not know where to start. Take it from me, you could do a lot worse than starting here. Highly recommended.