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Definitive Albums: Arthur Russell 'Another Thought' (1994)

Nightlife After Death

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Definitive Albums: Arthur Russell 'Another Thought' (1994)
Orange Mountain Music

So Unfinished

When Another Thought was released in 1994, two years after the death of New Yorker cellist, experimentalist, and disco evangelist Arthur Russell, it couldnt've been more of out place, out of time. In the prevailing 'alterna-rock' climate, Russell's compositions —eerie pop-songs dowsing cello and voice in echo, neverending tape-collages that turned disco rhythms into shrines to transcendental repetitions— didn't jibe with the sarcastic, nihilist spirit of the era. The only place for Russell was in the serious realm of modern composition: this set released on a Philip Glass-helmed classical imprint.

The grand thing about the passage of art history is the way time affords reinterpretations and re-evaluations of works. If Russell was largely ignored when alive and at work in the mid-'80s, and if Another Thought pretty much sunk without a trace when issued in 1994, this can be —and, indeed, has been— addressed by future generations. This record is, for an artist as scattershot, self-sabotaging, and discographically convoluted as Russell, as close as you can get to his masterwork.

Musically, Another Thought essentially stands at the centerpoint of Russell's turning world; somewhere between the half-dreamt haze of the lonesome cellist, the fearless explorer out to redefine musical boundaries, and the hedonist disco nerd ready to dance all night.

Into the Intimate

Far removed from the exuberant, sexually-driven disco anthems he made as Dinosaur L, Another Thought peers into an insular space both intensely intimate and strangely reserved. Rightly acclaimed as a master of using the studio as an instrument, Russell creates a sound-world that, to the human ear, is wholly evocative: his circular turns of echo and delay creating a sense of motion, his words —mic'd so every syllable's spat saliva is audible— pressed, somehow, right against the listener.

Russell's voice is, at once, both mundane and magical: flat yet evocative, bathed in a delay that as much amplifies Russell's technical shortcomings as it does hide them, singing these words as successions of sound more than lyrical poetry. But, there's no denying the simple, aching, utterly human elements of his vocals.

Whilst Russell mostly repeats phrases until their phonetic parts become blurred mantras, even these are loaded with an intensity of meaning; it impossible not to notice that this set's title is alive both in its opening, minimalist gambit "Another Thought," and in its glorious, classic pop-song "A Little Lost" (where Russell, romantically, croons "'Cause I'm so busy, so busy/Thinking about kissing you/Now I want to do that/Without entertaining another thought"). Russell sings often of kissing, more often uses water as a lyrical symbol, and each stands for the same thing: offering both romantic potential and the escape from self.

Heading for Nothing

Yet, the emotional tenor of this achingly-emotional set isn't set by Russell's voice, but by his cello. Wringing an array of sounds —staccato, rhythmic, cantabile, fiddle-like, harshly distorted— from the instrument whose tone and timbre most closely resemble the human voice, Russell's playing on Another Thought is the sound of someone radically rewriting all the parameters of musical correctness imposed by classical study.

A cut like "This is How We Walk on the Moon" showcases Russell's playing. Though there's a quiet drum-machine oscillating in the far distance, a gentle bongo slap in the left speaker, and Russell's delay-draped voice resounding God-like above the mix, it's the stark cello line that conveys all musical elements —rhythm, melody, timbre, syncopation— from just four strings.

His cello is never more alive than on this record's true stand-out, "Losing My Taste for the Nightlife," where it pings back-and-forth, from one 'side' of the mix to the other, in a series of half-suggested melodies and implied rhythms, full of bow-on-string scrapes and disorienting changes-in-distance. Sounding sadder than he does nearly anywhere else in his discography, Russell, in the song's second-half, takes to repeating its title; every utterance finding more of the youth, more of the life, draining out of the singer.

If the passing of time has allowed us to see Another Thought for the rich, rewarding listen it is, it almost seems symbolic that its most poignant moment is a lament for just that. Time, for an artist so concerned with his legacy, was always the ultimate enemy.

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