On the one hand, it’s impossible to talk about Arthur Russell as a single guy: He covered too much ground, connected too many dots—disco, minimalist classical music, bedroom pop, punky New Wave, and naive Americana—that seemed too far-flung to connect. On the other, it’s impossible to separate any single Arthur Russell from the rest: The more music released in the wake of his death from AIDS in 1992 at the age of 40, the clearer it becomes that part of Russell’s legacy was to help beat back the myth of the fixed creative self. For some artists, “defying genre” is a stance, a rebel marketing plan; with Russell, you get the sense that it was as effortless as breath.
Recorded in the early- and mid-'70s, a period during which Russell also studied Indian classical music in San Francisco, moved to New York to work on composition at the Manhattan School of Music, then dropped out to run an avant-garde performance space called The Kitchen, Iowa Dream is one of the first glimpses we have of Russell as a pop songwriter. The writing is sweet and casual, the kind of diaristic simplicities that would define indie pop years later: At one point, he sings about a movie he saw the night before (“You Did It Yourself”); at another, he talks about riding bikes (“Iowa Dream”). “I Wish I Had a Brother”? It’s about wishing he had a brother. As to the music, it goes in a hundred directions at once—country (“I Felt”), Paul Simon-esque ballads (“The Dogs Outside Are Barking”), jerky New Wave (“I Kissed the Girl From Outer Space”)—and yet always seems to be coming from the same place.