Experimental music often lacks a human touch. In its rejection of common musical tropes to create something daring and unprecedented artists often make the mistake of leaving out powerful emotion, which creates the impression that no one is meant to like the music. It is meant for hipsters and self-serious jackasses who listen to music to establish credibility rather than for enjoyment (bad experimental music, at least). Pop music, on the other hand, is the language of the common music listener: it chases after melody and passion, often so far that it forgets to create anything unique or exciting. After a certain familiarity with pop music, most listeners move past it simply because there’s nothing left to be done in the format.
It is the middle ground, the space in between, which becomes the breeding ground for exciting music scenes, unprecedented genre creation, and the machinery behind musical press hype. The fusing of experimental tendencies with pop music has given us some of the favorite albums in all of music: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Velvet Underground’s first two releases, and more recently Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs and Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition show the same trend occurring within hip-hop.
But these albums ambitions can also be their downfall; in chasing the unknown, artists lessen their chances of success in terms of sales and their listener base. This is the case for Arthur Russell’s World of Echo, an album from 1986 which cannot be categorized under any genre except the dreaded experimental tag.
It is easy to see why this album flopped upon release. It consists of only Russell’s voice and his cello under a variety of psychedelic effects. Arthur’s background as a pioneer of the disco scene as Dinosaur L (an important influence on David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who he worked with in the New York underground) are virtually extinguished; any sense of beat or rhythm is established by tapping, slapping, or smacking his instrument’s strings. All melody is slathered in delay and reverb and hidden within the soundscape he creates, only rising up for a few seconds before changing or hiding underneath another sound. In some cases he willingly interrupts the mood of the song in order to create an astounding sound, such as the brief burst of noise around 3 ½ minutes into “Being It” which appears for only one measure before abruptly changing back into a distorted string melody.
But it’s not about melody, it’s not about a beat, it’s not even about emotion (although there is plenty to be found). World of Echo is exactly that; an entire world of sound. Each song gives the visual impression of being underwater, of floating on air, of travelling through a dreamscape. This is where the album drifts into experimental territory, as it concerns itself more with texture and composition, even bordering on improvisational music (sometimes it’s hard to tell if certain offbeat/off putting noises are mistakes or just impressive changes made for a single instance (see: Arthur telling someone to “come in on the appropriate line” at :28 of “See-Through)). But rather than being purely innovative, Russell also shows his love for pop music with his fragile, imperfect, unmistakable voice.
The best example of this is the album’s centerpiece, the nearly ten minute “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See.” His cello drones a familiar and ominous series of melancholy notes which fade into his voice. The volume of both the cello and his vocals drops and rises, pulsing around each other in a sequence akin to a sonic slow dance. Effects constantly change and give rise to absolutely beautiful noises which couldn’t possibly occur from a classical instrument (except they do). His voice, however, is unchanging: though mysterious, it retains a sense of deep sadness and nostalgia, sometimes going quiet (his whispered “oh god” about three minutes in), sometimes overtaking the entire mix (the delayed “let’s see…” which appears around the eight-minute mark). But the moment which absolutely stands out comes at 7:18. After a new, less melancholy composition emerges (the second-part, “Let’s See”), Russell brings his cello to a full stop, launching into an absolutely beautiful, tear-inducing falsetto which seems to bring all the motion of the track to a moment of pure, innocent beauty. “Let’s see…if we can find out…” His lyrics, usually buried and hushed, evoke a relationship with someone long gone, or of a person hoping to recover a feeling which has long since faded into the past. It is harsh in its beauty and emotional impact, and only occurs twice as a reminder that sometimes the fleeting moments are the ones to be most treasured.
This is just one song. Each and every song on this record has at least one moment of awe-inspiring beauty or unbridled creativity which makes me wonder how the hell no one raved about this album during its release. How could you ignore that monolithic, pounding bassline which begins “Being It?” Or the vocal line which turns “Place I Know/Kid Like You” into a sprawling pop song, one which could be interpreted as either cautious optimism or misty-eyed remembrance of a person turning into someone you can’t recognize? The brief but incredible change in the composition of “All-Boy All-Girl” which interrupt the beat to introduce an entire emotional story line into the song? “At the same that they were letting go, they weren’t the same.” Absolute poetry, one reminiscent of a failed romance of my own, and the painful emotions and reality that are inevitable within a break-up.
Though I can’t understand this album’s lack of initial impact with audiences, it did indeed occur. Though critics recognized its unique beauty, the album was a commercial failure, and sadly the only record Arthur Russell ever released in his lifetime. His story does not have a happy end; Russell was a part of the AIDS epidemic which devastated the gay community in 1980’s New York (and everywhere in the world), and he died of HIV-related illness in 1992 at the tender age of 40. He worked on new music up to the bitter end, most of which can be heard on archival releases after his death.
As with many critical successes which flopped upon release, World of Echo became a cult classic. The most prominent use of his music is Kanye West’s sample of the vocals from “Answers Me” on his song “30 Hours”. In addition to influencing all of the composers and performers he worked with during his time in the New York underground (David Byrne, Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, Julius Eastman, and many more), Russell’s impact has been felt more than ever in the Internet-age, especially with the remastering and re-release of World of Echo. You can hear Russell on Frank Ocean’s more ambient-based tracks, like “Siegfried” and “White Ferrari.” Popular indie artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Hot Chip, Neon Indian, and Blood Orange have covered his songs to pay tribute to his legacy and impact on all types of music. And his use of quiet, quick electronic sounds on many of World of Echo’s songs were a forerunner for microsound, which has since been commonly used on many important electronic releases and even been the basis of certain electronic subgenres (ex: microhouse). Though he wasn’t recognized during his time on Earth, Russell has been fondly remembered ever since.
It is pointless to say anymore. Listen to this damn album and every other album under this man’s name. No words I say can hold the meaning evoked on this release, and no music released since has sounded even close to it.