Typically, each new entry in an artist’s discography is a progression. Every release contributes to an ongoing narrative of their career. New Arthur Russell records are more like puzzle pieces, adding to the perpetually incomplete picture of the late artist who passed away in 1992 due to HIV-related complications.
“Iowa Dream” is the latest posthumous Arthur Russell record released via Audika Records, the legal custodian of Russell’s colossal archive of unreleased material. The compilation record is composed of material largely recorded between 1970-1975.
At that time in Russell’s life, he was beginning his journey away from his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, venturing to San Francisco before finally settling in the East Village of New York City in 1973.
His pursuit of a music career was the only certainty after leaving Iowa. In Matt Wolf’s telling documentary “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell,” his father, former Oskaloosa mayor Charles Russell, recounts offering his son a job at the family’s insurance company if he came back home, to which the young Arthur Russell replied: “No. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the prairies.”
Yet, Russell visited Iowa often through his music, as clearly evidenced in “Iowa Dream.” The lyrical content frequently focuses on his childhood experiences growing up in Oskaloosa, with references to his mayor father, corn farms and bike rides.
Stylistically, this compilation subtly reaches into other areas of Russell’s music background: experimental composition and disco production.
However, the daunting experimental qualities of his discography are dimmed down a sizeable amount with this record. The disco undertones found on other posthumous records such as “Calling out of Context” and “Corn” don’t fully make their way into “Iowa Dream” either.
Still, tracks like “Barefoot in New York” and “I Kissed The Girl From Outer Space” display how his music was informed by his avant-garde, new wave New York experiences. Both of these songs play out like prime Talking Heads material.
Ultimately, “Iowa Dream” is a stunning presentation of Russell’s homegrown folk sensibilities, and his nuanced take on singer-songwriter music.
The comparison I keep coming back to after repeated listens is James Taylor, vocally and structurally. In the same fashion as a James Taylor record, the majority of songs on “Iowa Dream” are downplayed solo efforts, equal parts lonely and lovely.
With these influences in mind, there’s still something characteristically unique about Arthur Russell coming through on “Iowa Dream.” Russell’s trademarked sense of despondency and off-kilter instrumentals are casually sewn throughout the record, intertwined with songs reaching to sounds with more casual mass appeal.
The tracks “Just Regular People” and “I Wish I Had A Brother” exemplify this juxtaposition. The former is a stoic meditation on the simplistic nature of his loved ones, with sparse xylophone, flute and brass interpolations fading in and out of the mix. On the other hand, “I Wish I Had A Brother” is a simple, sweet and twangy childlike fantasy, with Russell singing about the joys he missed out on by not having an older brother.
These songs are similar in character but feel worlds apart in their execution. This mastery over the language of music and a profound take on musical textures found in “Iowa Dream” shows an Arthur Russell greatly ahead of the curve.
I usually find myself feeling lukewarm about most posthumous albums I experience. They often feel like cash-grab schemes taking advantage of a deceased artist’s brand. Audika Records, in contrast, takes great care in assembling Russell’s music in a way that continually gives depth and context to the life of a genius musician who passed away entirely too early.
Arthur Russell’s discography is not easy to approach, but the rewards are plentiful once you let him in and experience the authenticity he strived to communicate through his music. “Iowa Dream” is perhaps the most accessible Russell record to date, and it poignantly fleshes out his perspectives as a small-town Iowan boy, resulting in one of my favorite projects of the year thus far.