Despite having often come across the name Arthur Russell in music magazines, I never lifted a finger to learn about its bearer. I mean, that’s a culturally unpromising name, the name of a periodontist or a claims adjuster. Thanks, in part, to someone with a much more interesting name, I now know something about Arthur Russell. Jens Lekman. He’s Swedish, and maybe in Sweden his name is the equivalent of Arthur Russell’s, but still. Researching all the appearances he’s ever made in anything in advance of an L.A. live show, a friend saw that he put in a few seconds as a talking head in this documentary. Since I planned to join the trip to the Jens Lekman concert, I figured, hey, why not watch this Arthur Russell movie?
Russell turns out to have been a cellist, vocalist, and composer. If I draw an accurate conclusion from what evidence Matt Wolf presents, he was somewhere between a pretty eccentric and a very eccentric one. An Iowa-born mid-Baby Boomer with the requisite periods of Buddhist thought, commune life, hanging out in San Francisco, and dating Allen Ginsberg, he eventually made his way to the 1970s NYC avant-garde music scene. He recorded hours upon hours upon hours of material falling somewhere in the center of the axes between pop and experimental, between disco and minimalism, before AIDS got him in 1992. (There and then, even being in a long-term relationship apparently didn’t offer a shield. As David Sedaris once wrote, “Almost all of the gay couples I knew at that time had some sort of an arrangement. Boyfriend A could sleep with someone else as long as he didn’t bring him home — or as long as he did bring him home.”)
Getting in the middle of those styles means getting in, like, the wheelhouse of my wheelhouse. What are the odds of that? I understand that the phrases “avant-garde pop” or “experimental disco” sound crafted to make a great many musicophiles’ skins crawl; if there are musical traditions seemingly less enjoyed than the experimental ones, it’s the ones that pumped out of Studio 54. But I’ve been interested for years, sometimes even unconsciously, in combining, hybridizing, brokering a deal between — pick your metaphor — the cutting edge and the, er, wooden handle of several different art forms. I find all-new work meaningless. I find all-familiar work meaningless. Adventurous newness blended with solid familiarity — now that’s the sweet spot.
Quietly, but widely and firmly, the currents of music at large actually seem to have turned this way. True, my limited exposure to the ever-shrinking proportion of aggressively chart-topping pop — your Rihannas, your Lady Gagas, your Black Eyed Peases — tells me that stuff has somehow grown both duller and more bombastic than ever, but those aren’t the artists I hear talked about. The musical conversation, which I admit to not really participating in, swirls more around names like Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Toro y Moi, and even Odd Future. My Wire subscribership and position in freeform radio may well exaggerate this, but I feel like I’d get the same impressions, albeit on a smaller scale, if I were Joe Listener. The branches of music get stranger — which is a good thing — at the same time as its roots grow deeper into richly non-strange soil — which is a good thing.
So Arthur Russell, whose every track I’ve heard I’ve enjoyed and who reportedly left behind a Tupac-grade reserve of posthumously releasable recordings, might just have been ahead of his time — way too far ahead of his time. “Otherworldly” is the best word I can find to describe most of his solo material; as for his disco stuff, I can only embed videos of it and let you be the judge. But whatever the venue, I always hear a very strong listenability in his work, no matter how far afield he goes. Watching Jens Lekman perform at the Skybar, I thought I understood at least a little bit the ways in which he’s Russel’s heir. Lekman grew up in Sweden’s second-largest city, not the cornfields of middle America, and he sings about subjects like Kirsten Dunst and Rocky Dennis rather than the often unfathomable (and often unintelligible) abstractions Russel fell into — but still! The tradition of deeply askew pop lives on, hale and hearty.
Given all that, I wish I could say that Wild Combination takes on a form that suitably reflects the exuberantly oddball nature of Russell’s music. It doesn’t, really; most of it goes through the usual talking-heads-and-B-roll business. I didn’t feel like I had come to know Russell the man, but that may have been the idea. Lacking any interview footage with him, Wolf instead combines the words of those who knew him with a pile of still photos and archival footage of his performances. What sticks mainly in my mind are all the shots of Iowa’s vast agricultural emptiness. I don’t know whether Wolf overstates or understands the influence of Russell’s homeland on his art, but damn, it’s hard to resist going to the cliché “elegiac” to describe the footage he gets of the place.
(Epilogue: heading down Sunset after the Lekman show and entering the Standard, whom did we hear piped through the lobby speakers but — you guessed it — Arthur Russell? Hence the choice to sit around and drink a couple bottles of champagne there was made.)