Album Review: Arthur Russell — ‘Iowa Dream’

It was awfully sweet what Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella said about Iowa — but nobody has made this place sound so good as Arthur Russell. Iowa is always polite, always wild, not the convenient setting of some canonical work of literature read in high school classrooms. The lines are all smudged. Traffic stops for tractors that cost more than Cadillacs. There’s plenty of space — everything kinda spills everywhere.

The best of that bleed is Iowa Dream, the latest collection of songs plucked from the 166 feet of tape left behind when Russell died in 1992. The 19 tracks form borderless countryside, mostly singer-songwriter stuff from the kid who picked up the cello in Oskaloosa and then played the damn thing with the Talking Heads. But it’s obvious that these three-minute miracles never had a moment to gather moss, probably rolling around Russell’s head as he fled the cornfields for the building on 12th Street in New York City that was also home to Allen Ginsberg.

For Russell, the guy who dabbled in disco classics and would become the subject of academic dissertations, this collection is basically birdshot. On the wide-eyed title track, he pedals through his hometown, singing “I see, I see it all,” with the same enthusiasm as the pre-teen protagonists in Pokémon games. Another track, “I Felt,” takes place on the last day of school and has a hook that describes self-destructive behavior like a word problem (“And I felt so sad / I treated everybody bad”).

That doesn’t mean everything on Iowa Dream sounds awe-shucks and simple. “I Kissed the Girl From Outer Space” is a can’t-miss connecting flight from Mahaska County to the Paradise Garage, and somewhere along the way, its cockpit starts to smell like smoke; Russell does state, “I am water, man” — but the story is still about a boy’s big, dumb smile. And the stickiest bit of bubblegum in the bunch is the studio recording of “You Did It Yourself,” featuring the same tasty riff that was teased a decade ago in the documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.

No matter what else Russell did, in his music, he had pull like the moon. The tide throughout this collection ebbs and flows according to the whims of his songwriting. “Barefoot In New York” is one track that shouldn’t have any business being so listenable. It’s a dilated look at the dang sidewalk that won’t stop tripping Russell as he attempts to talk. Then, through the commotion, comes this: “I’ve always disliked the Rolling Stones since I found out what they were up to.”

Maybe heaven is too perfect to call even the nicest of nice places. But there is the voice of Arthur Russell. It’s coming from that couch in the cathedral, blissed out on board-certified doses, warped in the sunlight of itself. Listen to him sing, with piano and nothing else, on “The Dogs Outside Are Barking.” You’ll feel like you’ve found something for sure.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 275.

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