ARTHUR RUSSELL: LOVE IS OVERTAKING ME (2008)
1) Close My Eyes; 2) Goodbye Old Paint; 3) Maybe She; 4) Oh Fernanda Why; 5) Time Away; 6) Nobody Wants A Lonely Heart; 7) I Couldn't Say It To Your Face; 8) This Time Dad You're Wrong; 9) What It's Like; 10) Eli; 11) Hey! How Does Everybody Know; 12) I Forget And I Can't Tell (Ballad Of The Lights Pt. 1); 13) Habit Of You; 14) Janine; 15) Big Moon; 16) Your Motion Says; 17) The Letter; 18) Don't Forget About Me; 19) Love Is Overtaking Me; 20) Planted A Thought; 21) Love Comes Back.
This is yer friendly, cozy, homely companion to The World Of Arthur Russell: Audika's most widely celebrated and acclaimed archival release so far. It is one of the very few Russell albums to feature a clear, unaltered, and even somewhat «pastoral/cowboyish» picture of Arthur on the front sleeve — and the sleeve matches the contents, because the tracks that are assembled here, stretched over the man's entire career, are, for the most part, acoustic demos and sparsely arranged live instrument recordings. Programmed beats? Fuzzy avantgarde cello? Echo-laden hypnotic vocals? Forget it. On Love Is Overtaking Me, Arthur Russell says hello to James Taylor. To Bob Dylan. To Lou Reed. And, sometimes, to the Cars.
On this album, Arthur Russell is just a normal, lyrical kind of fellow. Fragile, insecure, a little romantic, a little paranoid, the works. Like a slightly less mystical and wizardly version of Nick Drake, or a slightly more coherent and down-to-earth version of Syd Barrett. He plays acoustic guitar — a lot; engages in lots of folk- and country-rock, particularly during the first half of the album; and, overall, through the careful selective work of his mediators, comes out as a soulful hero of the lo-fi style, ideal for modern hipster consumption. Released, say, somewhere around the mid-Eighties, the album would have left no trace; today, it is a mini-sensation.
Unfortunately, I cannot pretend to be impressed. It is a very nice, accessible, intelligent collection, but I fail to see any signs of genius. Melody-wise, the folk/country-ish half of the album is not at all rich on ideas — some generic waltzing, some minimalistic minor chord constructions that remind me of Nick Drake's Pink Moon (an album I have always considered to be overrated exactly because of its disappointing «minimalism»), some songs that sound like outtakes from a Bob Dylan album circa his Planet Waves period ('I Couldn't Say It To Your Face', etc.). You really have to have a special feel for Russell's personality in order to count any of these tunes as masterpieces; myself, I prefer to just view them as a marginally impressive additional side to that personality.
Luckily, the more fully arranged half of the record contains quite a few good pop songs. For instance, 'Hey! How Does Everybody Know' is stylish, catchy folk-pop à la Beau Brummels; 'I Forget And I Can't Tell', with its fast tempo and positive beat, could also have been a minor hit circa 1963 or so. 'Habit Of You' is a major highlight, a tune so insecure of itself it pushes New Wave synths, country-rock slide guitars, art-rock vocal harmonies, and classic singer-songwriter's paranoia into one three-minute package. 'Big Moon', on the other hand, sounds so oddly close to a typical 1970's soft-rock hit that one begins to wonder whatever made Russell experiment with that kind of songwriting — could it be that he was actually a closet fan of Bread? The versatility hits home, though, when the very next song ('Your Motion Says') betrays him as the invisible fifth member of The Cars (same interaction between guitars and keyboards). Etc. etc.
Summing up, Love Is Overtaking Me is an album best taken in perspective, both in its own and within the rest of Russell's catalog. From what I have just written, one could get the impression that Arthur was just a musical chameleon, a sort of American David Bowie with even wider scope and, arguably, even less talent. This is absolutely not the case. Russell's music is driven far more by his hear-and-soul complex than by intellectual calculation, and none of these particular songs sound like conscious experiments, they simply reflect various strains of influences that this omnivorous gentleman had embedded in himself. But it is only in this whole palette of influences that an «interesting» Arthur Russell begins to take shape. Individually, none of these songs have any intrigue; collectively, they represent one of the oddest intrigues of our time, and you do not even need a hipster conscience to come to that conclusion. Thumbs up.
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