Is Everything Recorded? : The Debut Work of an Icon
It seems almost irrationally important to get to the bottom of what “everything is recorded” means, more so than with most other artists. It isn’t terribly often that a project's moniker (both artist and album) seems so declarative, so convinced of some absolute truth. In those instances when it is named thusly, it is still remarkable for its sentiment to seem on the surface to have such a wide-ranging meaning. This is nomenclature less as aesthetic in-road and more as mission statement: it doesn’t offer much in the way of a glimpse into the objective of the project itself, but it might offer something about the philosophy of its originator.
We get some fairly obvious clues about the meaning when considering just who this originator is. Without hyperbolizing too much, Richard Russell is largely responsible for shaping the culture of dance music, hip-hop/trip-hop, and a fair amount of rock-n-roll over the past quarter century. As the founder and spiritual leader of XL Recordings, he has brought to light or promulgated such disparate and successful artists as The Avalanches, Portishead, Zomby, Basement Jaxx, Gil Scott-Heron, The Streets, The Horrors, and Peaches, just to name a few. That the label’s current roster includes Adele, Radiohead, and Frank Ocean, three of the most culturally significant big-tent acts of the moment in their respective genres, only serves to underscore the point: without XL, music in 2018 would look much different than it does right now. Without communities, or factions, of likeminded but modally diverse artists bumping elbows and cross-pollinating, art as a whole doesn’t evolve in the same ways – thus, XL’s role as a home-base for envelope-pushers has helped to bring about the current musical climate. In that respect, the story of Richard Russell is the story of a tastemaker who became the change he sought in the world, and then watched in the rearview as nearly everyone else tried to match his pace.
“Everything is recorded”, then, could be a nod to the fact that Richard Russell has built a life, an empire, a culture out of the act of recording and its resultant product. Without this procedural step of the actual recording, the story alluded to above would be only a prologue, devoid of necessary plot developments that would make for a compelling tale.
Russell’s role as producer and primary songwriter here speaks to another meaning for the phrase, however. When in the studio, most engineers live by the mantra “Always Be in Record [mode]”, meaning that you should be rolling tape (or digital audio workstation) with your ‘Record’ button pressed for every possible moment that the talent is in the live room. This ensures that you never miss any magic, and can save time in those instances when a rehearsal perfectly captures a vibe. Anyone who has spent time around studio techs can relay a story, many of which are urban legends handed down through oral tradition, about producers telling the talent to “warm up”, recording the take, and then nonchalantly informing the artist that it was perfect and that they had recorded it, and now were free to move on to the next thing. With Russell being the producer in chief with this project, “everything is recorded” could be an appropriation of that old maxim, repurposing it as a working motto or a statement of purpose.
But the songs here don’t speak to any of these ideas, really. Throughout the course of the album (which is stacked with amazing talent including Ibeyi, Kamasi Washington, London rapper Giggs, and heavy doses of Sampha’s award-winning vocals), the songs seem to meditate on the idea of being alone. Samples of a speech woven throughout the songs and interludes reflect that “it is possible to be alone, without living alone” – a repeated moment of motivational commiseration for those who feel lonely even with friends and family in the same physical space. It is a reminder of how much of our lives are spent inside our own minds and impervious to the reality of the world outside, for better and for worse. Some song titles cry for help and companionship – “Be My Friend”, “Show Love” – while others describe in more metaphorical terms a feeling of being fundamentally apart, or the inability to understand/be understood – “Close But Not Quite”, “Bloodshot Red Eyes”, “D’elusion”.
Everything Is Recorded, as an album, is one that fixates on what it means to be alone and the significance of connection. Thematically, it isn’t beholden to ideas of "recording" in the sense of creating recordings or in the sense of recording-as-process. The eclecticism of the collaborators and styles emphatically stresses the feeling that the overall product is one that could have only come from the mind of one person – each featured contributor is given ample opportunity to shine (and they definitely do), but the signature of Richard Russell is all over the album: organically lush melodic landscapes, drum programming with enough swing and bounce to show the humanity behind the sequences, a sample-heavy architecture as homage to both this music's past and the work of DJ's who helped bring electronic music up from the underground. In a piece of work like this, one can see the evolution of the Big Beat and chillout sounds of the mid- to late 90's into the current state of electro in a global sense; one can also connect the dots backward to find the influences from which producers like Jamie xx and SBTRKT picked up their future-leaning mood-istry and their infallible ears for melody.
With Russell being the one constant in a veritable sea of performers who are more than up to the task of giving voice to his thoughts, the idea of alone-ism seems to resonate more. Again, judging only by the themes and ideas present on the face of the songs, one could easily surmise that Russell, the artist, at some point faced an internal reckoning over feelings of loneliness. One could even come away with the idea that his ability to be alone became, counter-intuitively, a source of unexpected strength for someone who has made a career out of bringing people together, both by adding them to his label roster and in a more general way through the shared interests of music and art.
While this is one of many possible interpretations of the song cycle, it doesn’t provide any answers for the meaning of that pesky titular phrase. But there is something that does, one final piece of evidence to dissect. Almost incredibly, on an album called Everything Is Recorded created by an artist calling himself Everything Is Recorded, the closing song is also called “Everything Is Recorded”. This piece of dramatically forward, string-driven Trip-Hop&B provides the LP’s best showcase for Sampha’s impactful vocal style, and it shows us another meaning that doesn't come across as clearly over the rest of the album until it’s applied retrospectively.
“Everything’s recording / and one day you’re recalling / … / and I was going through every single moment / … / Because everything’s recorded / And nothing is distorted / Deep beneath the surface”
In these few snippets pulled from a verse and the chorus, we see another meaning of "everything is recorded": everything that happens in our lives is an experience that we document and learn from – it is something we remember and it helps craft our identity in ways both major and minor. To look upon the mind as primarily a data retrieval system is nothing new, but it takes on a new sheen when buttressing that functionality up against the algebraic uncertainties of emotion and circumstance – to put it another way, everything is recorded in our memory, and it weighs on our thoughts and actions to precisely the degree that we let it.
Part of the beauty in this lies in the reference to “nothing [being] distorted”. We all know that memory is imperfect – it is easily influenced, highly biased, and oftentimes simply incorrect. But while we're engaged in the act of remembering, it seems as though it’s perfect. We might remember an argument with a significant other and imbue it with a sense of having been in the right, but the actuality is almost always much more ambiguous. We may remember with absolute clarity the red lapel pin glinting in the sun the last time we saw a grandfather – and while there is nothing “distorted’ inside that memory, a photo from the day may reveal that the pin was blue. An insignificant detail, to be sure, but the certainty of how correct it feels is something that can cause problems in a more general sense when using our memories of the past to inform our all-too-real-and-right-in-front-of-us present.
An added layer here is the notion that when we remember things, we’re not actually remembering the things themselves. Some science indicates that our memories are more accurately characterized as memories of the last time we remembered something. Those fussy details that we obsess over can get more ingrained with each memory while each time they are also becoming a copy of a copy, moving further from the original purity – the act of repeating remembrances could theoretically cause the memory to seem even more clear over time, when it may just be that our synapses have simply become accumstomed to firing in that way. Our memory of something isn’t becoming more perfect, it’s becoming more entrenched inside whatever canonical emotional baggage we’ve attached to it.
Viewed along these lines, other songs on the album can take on new texture. “Wet Looking Road” centers around a Keith Hudson reggae sample, itself a kind of memory in audio form, that by virtue of its very presence evokes a recollection of the narrator’s “darkest night”. Wiki’s dissertation on the value of history comes up in “Mountains of Gold” (“We ain’t learned nothing from the past”) against a repeated voice in the distance insisting that “It’s much louder than before” – the present is being compared directly to the past here, and it’s being found both more relevant…and more toxic. Meanwhile, “Cane” is a late-album tribute to Gil Scott-Heron where Ibeyi creates a feedback loop of past and memory: they cover Scott-Heron’s song where he himself recounts a visage of the rural American south from the early 1900’s, they are singing from metaphorical memory the song of a man (who lives in the actual memory of Russell) as he retells someone else's memory – not surprisingly, their version of the song is smooth but dreamily fractured, its confrontational edges shorn off or perhaps just out of focus in this context, consider it Ibeyi’s rose-colored memory of the memory of the feeling of hearing the original for the first time.
And all these layers of abstract profundity are why it seems so important to put into words the meaning behind “everything is recorded”. Is it enough to write it off as a clever name, or a studio nerd’s in-joke? Does it make sense to read it as a knowing wink at Russell’s prolific career in the recording industry? Nothing stands out more clearly here than the personage of an artist who made the record ostensibly by being “alone, but not work[ing] alone” (to paraphrase the above-mentioned recurring sample). The themes of past and memory are cornerstones throughout, and the statement is perhaps meant to combine these different interpretations: everything is recorded in memory, memory works as a device to help us to find solace and connection when we’re alone, and harnessing of the power of self-sufficiency is what enables us to remake our world.
What we’re offered with Everything Is Recorded is less an insight into the workings of Richard Russell the artist, and more an insight into the mind of Richard Russell the person.