It’s possible to say a lot about Arthur Russell before mentioning his music. His biography is irresistible: An awkward gay Iowa farmboy runs away from home to study Buddhism; gives it up because he can’t give up his cello; ends up in New York City; falls in with downtown’s booming ’70s avant-garde scene; ends up enthralled with disco; releases a few seminal singles; and fades into obscurity and increasing hermitage, making the best music of his career from an apartment studio before dying of AIDS. Thanks to the recent documentary Wild Combination, that story is catching on, and now the music itself is following suit. Odds-and-ends collection Love Is Overtaking Me aims to explore the artist’s “pop, folk, and country” work; the problem is that Russell was never a folk or country musician, and the best of his pop work pushed against the confinements of the term. Opening track “Close My Eyes” lands squarely in the folk tradition: sacred, immediate, and unself-conscious as it pays homage to the Iowa of his childhood. But it’s as country, and as simple, as this record gets.
What follows are mostly less successful genre exercises, an idiosyncratic musician toying with the pop and folk forms that, while always influential to him, are unrecognizably bended in his best music. The paradox at the heart of Overtaking Me is that while all these songs sound idiosyncratically Russell—his voice and inflections are unmistakable—few capture the musical language that was so wholly unique to him. “Eli”, a raga-like cello-and-voice ode to a misbehaving dog, bucks the trend, though—it may be the closest he ever got to his ideal of “Buddhist bubblegum” music. There is no other musician who could make brief gestures toward atonality this beautiful and fluid.
Everything Russell recorded is worth a listen, but while “Close My Eyes” will likely soon stand alongside “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” and “That’s Us/Wild Combination” as one of the most instantly pleasing songs in his discography, this collection only occasionally captures him at the height of his powers. The uninitiated should start with Russell on his most penetrating and demanding terms (either World of Echo or Calling out of Context), or not bother at all.