Russell James: hard & simple & broken & free

Record: How to Be Alone (2020)

The poet sits alone in a world not built for him
smoking discount cigarettes pulling on cheap gin
the words they come from somewhere else
a place where he feels thin

The poet holds his scruples tightly to his chest
he opens up and he lets us in when he feels at rest
from the fire and the fury burning deep
beneath his breast…

from the song “The Poet,” on “How to Be Alone”
Russell James

Like thin smoke rising to meet a sky filled with scudding clouds, the soft notes from a distant harmonica entwine themselves around the voice and solo guitar of Russell James on the final track, “The Poet,” of his new EP, “How to Be Alone” (2020). This collection is the latest in a series of inspired short, sharp compilations of songs from singer-songwriter James from his new landscape in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Not so much inspired as perhaps resigned as he is to working alone in these difficult days, James is creating his new music from his home studio (as indeed we’re all searching for new ways to do our work in collective solitude while we await whatever will arrive after this storm of social injustice, pandemic, and economic collapse).

So the poet works alone. He sketches out his songs for another lyrical collection, five songs stripped of their decoration and production embellishments. This EP has more in common with a bootleg recording than a refined release from a seasoned studio rat. But in their stripped-down structures, these songs reveal the songwriter through confession, tenderness, and vulnerability perfectly calibrated for these times of heartache and uncertainty. You work with what you have.

Russell James "How to Be Alone" LP art

The five tracks on “How to Be Alone” are stark and confessional and sweet. Isolation has been hard on this recording artist, driving him deeper into his dark corners, made all the more stark without the security of intimate backing musicians, his familiar professional recording surroundings in New Mexico, and his longtime producer. But that’s the point, really, of these short collections. Sometimes art should reflect how exposed an artist feels as much as painting the technicolor portrait of the incremental distance he’s traveled to deepen his insights and technical skills.

The naked, confessional childhood memories and mysteries revealed in “History of Crime,” the uncertain, tenuous search for courage in “Tremor of War,” the life-weary failure of material objects as the stuff of a well-lived life (set against a guitar ringing like a bell) in “I Will,” and the nostalgic introspective innocence of “Lonely Bird,” along with the confessions of the songwriter conjuring the gin-soaked nicotine-stained life of the imaginary poet in “The Poet,” make this a touching collection that explores love and hurt and hope and loss.

Turning inward is never easy or comfortable when searching for truth. Confession is a brutal lens. Inevitably, we come up short because our words are almost always like smoke. We fix them in our gaze, but the slightest loss of focus, and what little truth we hope they carry has suddenly changed shape, vanished, or worst of all, remains starkly in front of us but fails to convince. “How to be Alone” is a mile marker for this recording artist, not a destination.

Still, in understanding the full picture of James’s journey, “How to Be Alone” is a record that reveals more than it withholds. “How to Be Alone” hints at further forays into solo experimentation and DIY minimalism from a songwriter steeped in the American traditions of artists such as Steve Earle (“Guitar Town”), Bruce Springsteen (“Nebraska”), and Son Volt (“Trace”).

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“cabin” / by Terry Richmond on Unsplash

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