Arthur Russell was the most maddening kind of genius: the kind who produces mountains of extraordinary work, and can barely ever actually finish it. A cellist, singer, songwriter, composer, and disco producer, he wanted to be a pop star, but he also wanted to be a hermetic avant-gardist. He settled for a middle path, with a series of extraordinary singles that are as fragile and free-form as dance music gets, mostly released under pseudonyms: Loose Joints, Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean. (Twelve-inch disco plates let Russell avoid settling on a definitive mix: Loose Joints’ pounding/nuzzling “Is It All Over My Face” circulated in multiple editions, with male or female vocals, and was also recorded as “Love Dancin’,” which was chopped up and overdubbed into several versions of “Pop Your Funk,” and so on.) Russell often turned his protean tapes over to others to complete for discotheques: Francois Kevorkian gave Russell’s semi-improvised “Go Bang! #5” a backbone and converted it into a club standard in 1982, and a few years later, Todd Terry flipped it inside out for his own “Bango.”
As Russell’s cult has grown over the past few years, most of his dance tracks have reappeared on compilations. But there’s never been an official collection of his beat-based work before The World of Arthur Russell. It’s a curious arrangement of exuberant disco (like Lola’s insane “Wax the Van,” which starts with a woman chirping “Hell-o!,” then roller-boogies through a family’s worth of Zen mantras, like “I need the sunlight/To keep on doin’ what I’m doin'”) and disco-influenced headphone music. Planted in the center of the album like a maypole, the holographic 13-minute groove “In the Light of the Miracle” is propped up by a pair of gaslit, sentimental voice-and-cello pieces whose rhythms are barely implied by a faint guitar or a thumb on wood. They’re the key to the album, actually. Once you get used to the sound of Russell’s cello, which is generally not all that cello-like, you notice it all over his records: the cat-purr buzz that electrifies “The Platform on the Ocean,” the phlegmy bend-and-snap of “Pop Your Funk,” the whispering rasp at the edges of his more songwriterly pieces.
Russell died of AIDS in 1992, after spending the second half of the ’80s endlessly working and reworking and never finishing an album of pop songs. Most of them have turned up on Calling Out of Context, the first of a series of releases from the Russell vaults. It sounds balmy but provisional, with its cheap synths and half-swallowed guide vocals. Russell’s singing always seemed to be mostly for his own enjoyment (when it creeps into “Is It All Over My Face,” late in the song, the effect is like Glenn Gould humming along with The Goldberg Variations), but hearing it here almost feels like eavesdropping. “Wild Combination” and “Arm Around You” could have been demos for much-better singers’ pop-soul hits around 1985—but we don’t have those hits; we only have these sketches, thin with erasures and additions and re-erasures. Sometimes there’s nothing more to them than a pitter-patter drum machine, a fluttering keyboard, Russell’s tentative murmur. It’s imperfect. Live with it.
The deliberate imperfections of Russell’s art are its deepest hooks. He loved to use instruments (like his cello or Peter Zummo’s trombone) that aimed for notes and barely missed; his songs drift off course, or wander from one idea to another. Russell’s lyrics are about emotional awkwardness and overwhelmedness, human bodies being human in motion and in water and in beds. (“Show me what the girl does to the boy,” he sings shyly on Calling Out of Context, “if you can get around to it.”) The pleasures of these affectionate, blurry songs are physical pleasures, triggered by small motions—like a hand reaching around to touch the far side of the beloved’s face, or a tap on a cowbell—and triggering heartaches and sweat, in turn. The voices on his records can’t necessarily sing, but they can’t keep from singing.