Keep the Lights On (Original Soundtrack)
Arthur Russell’s music is surely a dream for anyone compiling a film soundtrack his repertoire is so diverse that you’d be forgiven for mistaking his work for that of several different artists. The selection for Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On does a good job of representing some of Russell’s versatility, yet it also manages to maintain a winning simplicity.
Born in Iowa in the early ’50s, Russell escaped his rural beginnings for San Francisco, where he studied music. He then moved to Manhattan where he would spend the rest of his life, continuing to study but also working with avant- garde and dance musicians across both the thriving downtown and uptown music scenes. Russell’s work rarely achieved more than cult success during his all too brief lifetime, but what contemporary accolades he did receive were mostly for his disco, dance and proto-hip hop recordings, most notably for releases on his own Sleeping Bag Records, which effectively brought an art sensibility to the dance floor. When Russell died, of AIDS, in 1992, aged just 40, his apartment- come-studio was full of unreleased masters. Inherited by his partner, Tom Lee, this capacious back- catalogue has allowed for Russell’s music to be posthumously drip-fed to an ever-burgeoning fanbase.
With that in mind, the most exciting component of this soundtrack, for an Arthur Russell fan, is surely the inclusion of the, until recently, unreleased track, Come to Life. On it, Russell is joined by a mysterious unnamed female accomplice whose beautiful harmonies provide a new experience for those more acquainted with his work. One can’t help but dance along to what is simply a fantastic pop song.
Overall, the soundtrack carves an interesting path through Russell’s oeuvre, drawing from his folk-pop songs released on the 2008 Audika compilation, Love Is Overtaking Me, and cherry-picking from 1986’s sublime World of Echo longplayer. It even includes a piece of his chamber music, from his Instrumentals work, as collected on 2004’s First Thought Best Thought album, which nicely divides the soundtrack album in two with a vast lake of sound.
In fact, the album avoids Russell’s best known numbers (like ‘ is is How We Walk on the Moon’, for example), instead concentrating on tracks from his back catalogue which elaborate two themes – love and loneliness, integral elements of Russell’s music. Loneliness is perhaps what Russell articulates best, creating sparse audial landscapes with his heavily treated cello, against which his so, isolated voice meanders with a wan dreaminess. This is how I first discovered Russell and it is where I continually return.
Elsewhere, Russell’s folk-pop songs illustrate his equal facility for ingenuous, detailed expressions of what it is to be in love. The song ‘Your Motion Says’ contains the typically charming line: “It’s plain that I spend my time on you too much”. Russell was obviously all too familiar with infatuation and was equally capable of capturing the simple yet powerful feelings of lust and desire. In the penultimate track, he moves from a sparse landscape to a busy party and simply states his affection (the song’s title) across the crowded room: “Hey, I like you!”