Life is beautiful, and then she tries to leave you.
Confronting mortality is no easier at 17 than it is when you’re past your college years. We tend to romanticize these “events” by calling them something banal, like an “event,” for instance. The truth is, near-death only jolts you if you let it—life is as up to us as it isn’t.
XL Recordings co-founder and record producer Richard Russell knew this in 2014 when, after recovering from a life-threatening illness, he went into the studio to produce his debut full-length album, Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell.
Everything Is Recorded is an album about being lonely to your bones when your bones are failing you. Russell’s production is at times skittering and consuming (“Be My Friend”), sandy, sultry, and syncopated (“She Said”), grimy and snarling (“Wet Looking Road”), or situated in the pit of a chamber orchestra from 3018 (“Bloodshot Red Eyes”).
For his eclectic range, he’s recruited an impressive and unexpected host of guest features: Wiki, Sampha, Giggs, Kamasi Washington, Infinite (Ghostface Killah’s son), Green Gartside, Ibeyi, Syd, and many more.
At the very least, this album is a master class in the art of the pivot. Moving from the hard-bop stylings of “Mountains of Gold” to the taut and tightly wound bass notes on “Show Love,” the new rhythm plays like a natural extension of Washington’s saxophone. In that breath, no voice on this album is without a sonic counterpart. As collaborative efforts go, Everything Is Recorded is a musical communion.
For all the external voices on the record, this LP is very much Russell’s brainchild. Everything Is Recorded has two guiding lights: a vocal sample unpacking the depth of loneliness, and Sampha. The album opens with the lines, “There are moments in our lives, that we feel completely alone. We feel as though no one knows what we’re going through. It is possible to be alone, and not live alone. It is possible to feel alone and not work alone,” which are neatly stitched into a series of sonic vignettes showcasing the rest of the album.
As we move into the second track, “Close But Not Quite,” Sampha amends the opening sentiment, singing the thesis of the record in an orchestrated duet with the late Curtis Mayfield. Over a bed of sprightly and lilted keys, we find ourselves in the heart of the plot: “I feel like I don't have the words / Because I can't speak,” because certain pains transcend language.
The opening sample is baked into warmer and warmer soundscapes. The wobbly and ethereal tones of “Echoes in the Bone” reframe the sample and the setting of the record. Where we once felt overwhelmed by the notion of isolation, it now sounds like a far-off dream. Like a standard acid trip in a spring field, the distance from the sample provides us with a temporary wholeness.
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Even still, on the closing and titular track, “Everything Is Recorded,” we find our enduring and situated selves at war. Sampha’s verses push the ideal that every moment and every memory is critical, for better or worse. Electronic flourishes and Sampha hitting every note in his range from syllable to syllable give us a picture of nostalgia sans rose tint. Following the breadth of sounds and emotions, this realism is as grounding as it is soothing.
Then the main sample returns. Logic would dictate that the album ends on an enduring high, but life and logic rarely coincide. Instead, damp and near-choking accents clutter the sample. The final 20 seconds of the album are claustrophobic and heavy, like a panic attack. Then the sound cuts out because life does not ask—sometimes she only takes.
Harrowing, but there is good news: we can always replay Richard Russell’s opus. Not all is lost.
Three Standout Tracks
“Close But Not Quite” ft. Sampha
This track positions Sampha to be our emotional guide throughout the album. The sheer genius of sampling Curtis Mayfield and putting him in conversation with Sampha on the chorus is reason enough to file this one for all future playlists.
“Mountains of Gold” ft. Sampha, Ibeyi, Wiki & Kamasi Washington
Between XL favorites like Wiki laying superb verses and Kamasi Washington treating us with an equally moving saxophone solo, this is one of the more enduring and traditional cuts on the record. Play "Mountains of Gold" to hook new fans, then suggest they listen to the album from top to bottom.
“Show Love” ft. Syd & Sampha
Some deeper house influences and a fantastic Syd feature should be enough to sell anyone. Syd’s vocal is sinuous and velvety goodness and an apt distraction from the heavier themes of the record.