Before His Time, Time After Time
Given that Arthur Russell was a prickly perfectionist, it seems strange that the only solo album he released in his way-too-short life —1986's World of Echo— is a record that sounds far from anyone's idea of perfection. As disco producer —making music as Loose Joints, Dinosaur, Dinosaur L and Indian Ocean— Russell would make endless iterations of every song; mixes after mixes, searching for that elusive definitive version in what was, usually, a fruitless pursuit. Upon his tragically-young death in 1992, Russell left behind thousands of tapes of unreleased music and unending mixes; having never arrived at the final, finished version of anything in his life, his music will now remain eternally open-ended.
In this context, then, World of Echo makes perfect sense. The album —the only one Russell ever consented to release in two decades of music-making— was Russell's way of letting go of perfection, of embracing imperfection. The 'world' of its title is telling: here, playing God of his own artistic world, the Creator allowed things to be human.
Meaning, the elaborate disco productions —the strings, the divas, the precise percussion— was torn away. In its place were scrapings of cello, mournful singing, some flickering electronics, and plentiful echo, delay, noise, and tape-hiss. It's a 'world' in the most atmospheric sense; the surface noise of the productions create an environment that Russell's spartan, sad, barely-there songs inhabit.
Long before chillwave turned tape-sheen into a sum artistic statement, Russell used the rich qualities of magnetic tape to startling effect. Russell's perfectionism was rare for a DIY artist in the '80s, but emerged as standard practice in the '10s, when recording software made endless versions possible. Russell was ahead of his time, aesthetically, spiritually, and stylistically; his music making more sense decades later than it ever did in its day.
A Whole World (in His Hands)
When released in 1986, World of Echo was a commercial disaster. Licensed for release in the UK by influential independent Rough Trade, it had a chance at acquiring a cult following in England, but Russell would never tour there. Melody Maker, in a move that now seems visionary, listed the LP amongst their 30 best albums of the year, but no one else seems to have particularly cared.
In the context of '80s indie, Russell may've made no sense, but by the time new technology made home recording a cottage industry in the '00s, Russell's intimate, experimental, radical take on personalized pop-music —fashioning his own unique sound from such disparate influences as disco, compositional minimalism, musique concrète, country, punk, and Indian traditional music— seemed wholly contemporary.
By then, listeners were more forgiving of Russell's eccentricities; and of the 'unfinished' nature of World of Echo. Tunes once considered too alien to be pop-songs, years on, seem that way; hushed meditations set to slippery, sub-aqueous sonics, sung with gentle passion, and delivering melody, verse, and chorus enough to sing along. Another Thought, the posthumously-released 1994 record, was a more forceful, coherent set of songs, but World of Echo, is, once it lures you in, every bit as effecting.
Even if "Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let's See" is two songs strung together into nine-and-a-half minutes of spare cello and barely-there heft, there's still refrains, evocative playing, tangible emotion. "Hiding Your Present from You" is built on flickering, crackling electronics, but its rhythmically sound and melodically sweet. "Lucky Cloud" may be discordant and uneasy, but it's still a profoundly-sweet ballad, laid bare.
The album, on first spin, may scan like a collection of half-finished sketches: the wobbly fidelity leading to the feeling that these are demos, songs in mid-construction, with all their component parts soon to be added. But the more time you spend in this World the more its logic makes sense, and the more it feels not incomplete, but whole.
Record Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: September, 1986