Russell James: changing lanes

Record: Pay Attention (2019)

‘Pay Attention’ is full of electronic bips and bops, synthesizers, heavily effected electronic guitars, and brutal, autobiographic honesty. It sounds great, people like it, but it’s not me. I felt this as I was finishing everything up for its release. It feels inauthentic to who I am, and it has nothing to do with why I started writing music in the first place.

Russell James, from a blog post entitled “A Newer Leaf,” The River’s Bend (Russell’s personal blog, link in this review below)
Portrait of Russell James at 40.
Russell James (photo from “A Newer Leaf,” used by permission)

I have never been here before, writing a review of a record I personally like and respect, by a recording artist I care about and consider a friend, after reading a lengthy blog post from the artist’s blog, The River’s Bend — frank, honest, brutal language about how much he dislikes his own creation, how it’s not him, what it cost him emotionally to make it, how it’s not even authentic. It’s a shattering collection of confessions, stripping bare the song’s intentions, and any hope, for now, of hearing his lyrics as universal metaphor within a shared human experience. But something’s wrong here. Of course, an artist can disavow any respect for his or her creation. I get that. They have that right. But what do we do with their rejection of their own work, before we’ve taken it all in, even as we’re still getting to know their new songs?

Reading Russell’s post, it seems the crisis lies in his use of electronics and heavily treated guitar parts backlighting brutally honest, painful lyrics (Russell is a gifted guitar player, plugged-in or unplugged, just him with his guitar and his words and his songs) — beauty (of the shimmering dream out there waiting) and a beast (a deep sense of failure in execution).

Electronic music has been the dream of humans for more than a hundred years. We’ve dreamed of merging with machines for almost as long as we’ve dreamed of machines. For some (like me), I fear we’re too far gone to turn back from computers dominating our relationship to music. Others feel we’re just beginning to explore the exotic possibilities of where sonic art can take us. But that’s not what I want to explore. I want to speak about the huge disconnect I feel when I listen to a record on its own merits knowing its creator hears something else, something bad. It’s an irresistible challenge.

If you jump to Russell’s blog you will very quickly discover that his writing swirls around autism and mental health. Russell is a working artist with autism. He writes candidly about subjects most of us would never put into writing. Some of his posts are hard for me to read. He can be severe, especially when he’s talking about what he perceives as his weaknesses or failures. His fears can feel suffocating. Then again, I’m not sure I’ve met an artist yet who thinks every record they’ve created is perfect. Who isn’t broken, even just a little? Being broken makes us feel.

More often than not, I encounter doubt from artists everywhere! Most artists think their latest offerings are total crap and can’t wait to get started on their next project, because it will be so much better. (I knew a painter once who would joyfully sand off a gorgeous finished painting because the backing board was more valuable to him, for his next painting.) They don’t have favorite songs. They don’t like listening to their own records. I’m frequently attracted to songs that aren’t a record’s lead songs. I’m not saying the industry or A&R guys or labels get it right, either. I am saying that every record, if it makes it into the world, makes a statement. I want to explore the statement within “Pay Attention” (self-released, 2019).

I have always accepted most artists have moved on by the time I get to their latest work. But when I do get there, who am I hearing?

Dark road with car taillights streaming by

This is no way to live. Walking through life making decisions based on what others think is pretty damn common for autists like me, and it is also antithetical to being a true artist. ‘Pay Attention’ is the apex of this crowd-pleasing motivation: pop songs with brutal emotions sewed into them. The sound was completely shaped by what I thought people may want to hear from me.

Russell James, from a blog post entitled “A Newer Leaf,” The River’s Bend (Russell’s personal blog)

If “Pay Attention” is anything, it’s the authentic, revealing exploration of being an artist with autism, set to pop songs in a crumbling music business. Autism, in my opinion, isn’t all who Russell is, nor is pop music. But autism drives Russell’s intense focus and narrative. Once locked into an idea, into the potential beauty of the destination he sees, Russell has to find out what it will look like, feel like. His passions and his sources run deep, especially connecting him to two bands from his youth — one relatively quiet in terms of output and impact, and another that literally ruled the earth for a time. Both have painted masterpieces — both have burned brightly in their experimentation and risk-taking. These same sources can be felt in his earlier record, “Wave/Water” (self-released, 2018).

Last month I interviewed Russell about the source of his inspiration behind “Pay Attention.” Then, I detected no reservations about this new project. “I guess the original impetus in wanting to make a record like ‘Pay Attention,’ was that EP called ‘5,’ by Slowdive, that came out in 1993,” he said. “It’s all canned drums, and it’s all synthesizer work. That led me into this place where shoegaze met electronic music. I was really into it. Ambient music became electronic, and I didn’t know who these people were back then.”

Russell also spoke about his love for U2’s experiments with electronic music, long after the band burned through their years of making guitar-driven masterpieces like “War ” (Island, 1983), “The Unforgettable Fire” (Island, 1984), and “The Joshua Tree” (Island, 1987). “I was really into the U2 albums of the 90s, too, like “Actung Baby” (Island, 1991), then “Zooropa” (Island, 1993), and finally “Pop” (Island, 1997),” he added. “‘Pop’ was super electronic and dancey. So, I had this groundwork in there for me to want to do this. And I wanted to.” At the time of my interview with Russell it really struck me as a unique statement — you rarely read of artists today praising the 1990s U2 records as source material. How many “100 Best Records” lists include those U2 1990s records? They’re not bad, just different.

Also, is wanting to please fans a sin? (If it is, there are literally tens of thousands of sinners out there!) From a certain perspective, bending pop songs to the light of lyrical, brutal honesty is a clever way of getting out a mass message. “Pay Attention” certainly shimmers with pop surfaces, but it also includes haunting guitar riffs and, more often than Russell believes, soft, vulnerable, emotional lyrics.

I haven’t enjoyed playing live music in at least a year, probably more. This has been reflected in the number of shows I’ve played and the number I’ve cancelled. Live performance has become a root of a lot of anxiety and meltdown. It’s exhausting for me.

Russell James, from a blog post entitled “A Newer Leaf,” The River’s Bend (Russell’s personal blog)

There are 25 tracks that make up “Pay Attention” on Bandcamp. There are several solid performers on this record, some that comprise the official release: the lead track, “1994,” with its sense of longing and nostalgia for lost youth in ruined suburban landscapes; “My Lullaby,” full of soft, twilight guitar lines and classic lullaby structures that both comfort and reassure, a welcome counterpoint from some of the darker places on this record; and finally, the true gem of the record, “The Willow Tree,” again a guitar-driven confessional track searching for DIY courage.

The rootsy “bonus section” of this release both reveals the process of the songwriter — working mostly on an acoustic guitar — and contains rough drafts of songs full of energy that could easily reappear on another record: “The Throes,” with its deep electric guitar, and lyrics almost too naked to face, but nevertheless succeeds as a rich guitar soundscape ready for revision; “Sixteen, For Nicole,” with its casual nod to Bruce Springsteen early home recordings (in fact, many of these bonus tracks point toward a lo-fi follow-up record devoid of synth polish); and “Changing Lanes,” a window into the price of the road for any traveling artist (the headwaters, perhaps, of Russell’s blog post?), depleted by the emptiness of chasing the ever-receding gig life: “There’s something about traffic that darkens the soul.” Indeed.

If Russell James stops with “Pay Attention,” it would be a great loss, especially given how much of the story is waiting in the rough bonus tracks. If this record is taken for what it is, a dark experimentation from an artist at a crossroads — scratching an itch he was destined to scratch — an artist trying something he had to try, it could easily be the inspiration to make the next record the real deal, Russell’s something new. The album title says it best: pay attention.

I sort of enjoyed making this latest album, but not a whole lot. I certainly didn’t have many moments where I was excited about it… I was more relieved to get it off my plate than I was excited for people to hear it, and that’s sad.

Russell James, from a blog post entitled “A Newer Leaf,” The River’s Bend (Russell’s personal blog)

The road is brutal. In this world of the disingenuously (and cynically) named “gig economy,” the road that once meant adventure and possibility and even fortune has become miles (and years) of insecurity on wheels. If there’s a beast in Russell’s narrative, and indeed for any recording artist today, it’s the road. I has to be. The miles between low-paying (or no-paying) shows and ambivalent audiences — tired bars and restaurants where most patrons don’t even notice the bands playing on stage in front of them. I wonder if the harshness of Russell’s message in “A Newer Leaf” is really about a deep weariness from the road and the grind of mechanical performances, one after another, rather than his time spent in his studio. If that’s the “pleasing others” he speaks of in his blog post, I agree.

If Russell James is changing lanes, I hope he returns to music and to making records. “Pay Attention” is not a failure. (Sorry Russell, this record is true to the artist you are.) Honesty is never wrong. Every record is just a chapter in the evolution — some, even, are more daring leaps of faith past insecurity and doubt and fear and cynical commercial exploitation.

No record is a final destination. Out there, Russell James’s next flawed, beautiful moment of expression, his next partial answer to the next imperfect question, is waiting.

What do I want out of life? What do I want out of my music? What is reasonable? What is possible? Where do I want to go?

Russell James
Empty parking lot at night.