The moment I realised this album was from the head of XL Recordings, a man I previously hadn’t heard of but who some of my very favourite artists had trusted to release and share their music, I had a feeling this had the potential to be something quite important, even special. I predictably found out about it thanks to my razor sharp stalking skills. Sampha, a singer-songwriter from the heavens who released his own stellar debut album earlier this year, features in the opening track of Close But Not Quite alongside the old soul Curtis Mayfield. Unfortunately, it turns out I wasn’t the only one who became very intrigued by Richard Russell’s collaborative debut album – the New Yorker has just published one of their standard mammoth size essays on the man himself, so if you’re looking for better journalism (I’ll give it to you Matthew Trammell), you might as well go read this already and forget about me in my unemployed misery (which I have in the past masked as a gap year).
As head of XL Recordings, Richard Russell has seen a genuine variety of artists in their prime. From Radiohead to Sigur Ros, from Låpsley to Adele, from Gil Scott-Heron to even Jai Paul (who has yet to give us an EP or album or even just another one of those demos to follow BTSTU and jasmine, both of which were released over five years ago), Russell has in his capacity as king of XL supported artists of formidable momentum, providing them an unnerving freedom in an industry that has become known for almost clinical control, precise marketing and literally anything to boost sales. XL’s artists have been a significant presence in multiple genres of music in recent years, validating the label’s ethos in embracing artists with strong, individual, and distinctive identities.
‘Despite all the differences, the songs work together, built around the same structural framework – our very inescapable, very human lives and thoughts, and our equally inescapable weaknesses’
It is hardly surprising that after all these years in music Russell has led Everything Is Recorded in the exact way he runs XL Recordings. His recently released EP, Close But Not Quite, is more of a collaborative project than the phrase reveals. Encompassing multiplicities and contrasts in voices, lives, styles, times, places, sounds and words amongst much else, the record is a monster to tackle in a single listening session because there is so much to listen to and understand. Contrary to what one may expect from an album of such range, Russell’s EP does indeed develop great depth despite of, and, in fact, because of the range and the ways in which the differences and contrasts are synthesised so naturally in music. It reflects his strengths as the head of a label in that he is able to bring together many voices and not drown them out with his own, but instead with great restraint lets them connect and, in the case of this EP, grow into each other. As producer, as creator, as artist, this is Russell at his finest (already); creating harmony out of different identities that he acknowledges, includes, appreciates and presents, with very little control yet with such care, in all their glory.
When I say that the EP encompasses times, I literally mean it. Russell samples Curtis Mayfield from the 70’s in the opening track that also brings in Sampha, whilst Giggs features on the second song alongside Gil Scott-Heron’s easily identifiable voice, which is as strong a presence as much as it is an absence in this EP. XL released Scott-Heron’s last ever album, I’m New Here, a year before the legendary artist, who was so in all senses of the word, passed away in 2011. An informal recording of a conversation emerges towards the end of Early This Morning, as Scott-Heron says hauntingly, ‘If you gotta pay for it, the things you done wrong, I got a big bill coming’. On the other hand, the penultimate track D’elusion dissolves the contrast between the past and the present that defines the first two songs, instead drawing attention to a perpetual, permanent struggle. Featuring an unidentifiable speech, it cleverly evokes freedom as an ‘illusion’, suggesting simultaneously that you and I, we’re all deluded for a freedom that always eludes us. The song echoes spiritually and on an individual level, but also socially and politically.
From Sampha’s clean electric voice and electronic surroundings to the raw sounds of Washed Up On The Shore, and further still to the Indian-inspired ambient instrumental featuring Baluji Shrivastav that is the closing song, aptly titled ‘The Rhythm of Life and Death’, this EP has a substantial range that tightly packs together not only an evolution of music but also the persistent state of existentialism. I like to think of it as the musical form of On the Origin of Species and A Brief History of Time all in one. (Not sure Darwin or Hawking approve this message, but my editor does.) The album is essentially five songs demonstrating existentialism in sonic form, exploring timeless weaknesses, if not failures, of language and expression, life, death, the afterlife, freedom, you, and I. Despite all the differences, there is an organic and cyclical process of development and decay, in how clean and rough sounds, transform and overflowing landscapes of voices intertwine over the course of the album. Despite all the differences, the songs work together, built around the same structural framework – our very inescapable, very human lives and thoughts, and our equally inescapable weaknesses.
If you’ve actually gotten this far, well done. The five paragraphs above are a lot of words, a bunch of coffee-fuelled inaccurate and insufficient translations of the music, the art that this project actually is. So please, just listen to it – really listen to it – and let yourself experience it in more than my words or your words can express, because at the end of the day, like Mayfield and Sampha realise, ‘these words I try to recite / They are close but not quite’.
Image: XL Recordings