Posthumous releases never feel quite right. If the artist didn’t leave notes, how do we know they wanted their songs completed? Or listed in this order, or with this production? Or, most importantly, shared with the public at all? When it comes to a musical prodigy with as staggeringly diverse and avant-garde a catalog as Arthur Russell, a posthumous release such as Corn seems even more invasive. But, as his fans know, when the beloved musician passed away in 1992 from AIDS-related causes, he left stacks of unreleased material which he had mixed and edited. Withholding new music would have pained him more than any writer’s block.
It’s been seven years since Audika Records (the label created for the sole purpose of releasing Russell’s work) last issued an album of his material. In that time, Russell’s partner, Tom Lee, teamed up with the label’s Steve Knutson to compile this nine-track record. Each song is pulled from Russell’s original quarter-inch tape masters that were compiled on three separate test pressings in 1985: El Dinosaur, Indian Ocean, and Untitled. The collection is, unsurprisingly, both experimental and pop, noisy and disco, classical and modern.
Corn spends most of its time catering to quasi-classical electronics, the underground New York niche that earned Russell his first fans back in the ’70s. Between his 1982 album 24 ->24 Music and his 1983 disco single “Tell You Today”, he set aside several solo dance numbers not yet rounded by his perfectionism, many of which are alternate versions of Russell staples. “See My Brother, He’s Jumping Out (Let’s Go Swimming #2)” speeds into double-time with celebratory horns, while “This Is How We Walk On The Moon” expands into a twisted version where thin cello plays like a fiddle. Russell’s first posthumous release, 2004’s staple Calling Out of Context, contained four songs from these sessions, but unlike those, this new collection boasts sharper, rougher tracks. “Hiding Your Present From You” is riddled with distorted cello, but angelic keyboard and Mustafa Ahmed’s buoyant congas keep the pulse thriving, even with three faux fade endings thrown in. It’s the type of work that current innovators like Hot Chip and James Murphy routinely cite as an influence.
Others, like Sufjan Stevens and Dev Hynes, take note of Russell’s folk pop and cello songwriting. “Keeping Up” illustrates that pop narrative beautifully, cushioning his airy, warm vocals with sunny cello work rushing in time with the drum loop. Unfortunately, it fades out at the two-minute mark, reminding us that whatever peek into his mind we can access now will always be cut short.
Thick snare slaps on opener “Lucky Cloud” as dissonant cello scratches. Then, of course, are the title tracks, “Corn” and “Corn (Continued)”, which see four other songs placed between them. The former is just over two minutes of thumping bass from the rhythm machine in which Russell tries out various cello movements, working in incomprehensible order. The latter, clocking in just under 10 minutes, allows him to fully explore what he is clearly itching to get out: a myriad of tone, timing, and melody too jaunty to make the radio-style version.
Corn closes with a curious collision of recordings on instrumental track “Ocean Movie”. Prefaced by solitary cello and isolated vocals on “They and Their Friends”, it begins with muffled whirs and what sounds like something, or someone, gurgling in submerged water. Strings echo and then fall to the wayside when swollen keys gracefully overpower them, leaving a golden Boards of Canada hum. All that follows is the black and white photo of Russell on the album’s back cover. He sits cross-legged on the beach in a thick cable knit sweater, large Wayfarers masking his eyes, audio equipment tangled on his lap, with a cheery grin on his face. Although headphones outline his head, the sight looks peaceful, quiet, reassuring. It’s the best way to remember him: hunting for soundscapes and in love with the world.
And so Arthur Russell’s legacy continues to grow. As millennials learn from cues left in his wake, be it the titular nod of James Blake‘s 1-800-Dinosaur label or Red Hot’s recent star-studded tribute release, his ties reveal themselves with each passing year. Corn is a welcome reminder of Arthur Russell’s talent, allowing us to imagine, if only for 45 minutes, that he’s still walking the streets of downtown New York beside David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg. Some artists can’t help but sing from the grave; not only is Arthur Russell one of them, but he keeps one hand sewn to his cello bow and the other plugged in to a rhythm machine so the music stays loud enough to hear without even pressing your ear to the ground.
Essential Tracks: “Keeping Up”, “Ocean Movie”, and “Corn (Continued)”