Our Last Night Together

Lately I’ve realised how many songs have been written on the theme of a last night before a goodbye, but none feel as harrowing as the closer to Arthur Russell’s World of Echo. The simplicity of the song speaks not only of love let go but encapsulates the album’s very reverberations. It’s not certain who or what Arthur is speaking to: a lost love or the world of echo he has habited or some wild combination of the two.

At its most intuitive, to fall in love is to fall into a world of echo. Even when it ends, it never really goes away. It reverberates, whistles on the wind, but at its most powerful and all-consuming, it is nothing more than two people in a room, their words and their echoes enveloping the other.

Then, eventually, someone leaves. On rare occasions, you take each other by the hand and leave together, before going your separate ways. You can return, talk, be there, but so often the hardest thing is not being able to re-enter the room, the world of echo.

“Although you’re coming back, it’s our last night together. Although you’re coming back, I’m losing you for now.”

Tomorrow evening, I make the final spring journey up to Newcastle. All my stuff is up there now. I just need to go and join it.

I’m starting over. The last two weeks, the last four months, have been spent mentally adjusting to the hardest decision ever made, separating gently and consciously. Physically, the process is far less measured. It’s a sense of touch, a sense of proximity, a sense of coming apart. It is never not a wrench. Either skin is touching skin or it is not. Thoughts are repositioned, but feelings are torn. What’s underneath is bare and vulnerable, newly born.

The grief has been overwhelming, coming in and out of phase as we await the inevitable. I’m surprised by how grief-stricken I have felt. No one has died, but it nonetheless feels like one life is coming to an end whilst another is simultaneously beginning anew.

All day today I have felt like I’ve been grasping at air, trying to stop time or slow time or just hold it steady. She’s not even at home, but what’s so painful is that home is still how it feels. Tomorrow, it won’t be, or maybe it will, but not in the same way. And yet, nothing is really going to change, we keep telling ourselves. I’m coming back. We’re too important to each other to turn our backs and simply march off in separate directions. But something is changing. Oddly enough, it’s hard to say what. A mental state? A thought? A certain relation or configuration? We’re saying goodbye to an abstraction, an idea. That’s all. I’m losing her for now, but I’m coming back.

But to what? This decade-long echo, this tandem reverberation, this uneasy doubling is dissipating and coming to rest. The vibrations will be different from here on out. What comes next will be different.

It’s a strange sensation, but so fitting that Arthur would soundtrack these final few days for me. 2014, the year after the release of Arc Light’s vinyl reissue of Another Thought, felt like the year Arthur Russell fever was fully ignited. It felt like everyone discovered this idiosyncratic back catalogue at the same time. An album like World of Echo, usually quite a austere choice for listening in mixed company, was a strange world we were all inhabiting at the same time. We were all collectively in the mood for Arthur’s cello.

2014 was also the year we first moved in together, and Arthur soundtracked so many rainy Cardiff days, so many mundane profundities, so many deliveries.

I like when people talk about Arthur Russell’s “delivery”. His playing, his voice, is his and his alone, but in another sense his music truly acts like a postcard. It arrives, gets stuck on the fridge for a while, then maybe placed in a drawer, only to be rediscovered when you move house or have a spring clean, a madeleine de Proust that washes back over you, maybe stuck back on the fridge for a while. It defines and redefines your circumstances, it colours space, allowing for a return to a vibe when the sounds are replayed.

It’s a near-universal experience. When you listen to something enough and your bones get to know it. The hairs stand up on your skin as if responding to some acknowledgement from deep within. Arthur Russell’s music always felt like that, albeit folded back on itself. It’s one thing to reminisce with your one-time favourite band, but how do you respond to the music that you make yourself? That’s where Arthur seems to live: in some liminal space between constant creation and recreation. The dubs and versions and alternate takes are so central to the span of his life, as if another version indicates the return of a thought in another time. But after a while, you get the sense that, once their sung, the songs are not quite his anymore. Attending to the flow of his own creativity, Arthur’s songs fall through his hands like sand, and must be constantly reshaped anew.

It changes the entire feel of his music, which seems to rest so much upon that sweet jazz dichotomy of improvisation around the shared conjuration of standards. “First thought, best thought”? Maybe… But what about the conditions of thought? What about our attempts to rethink our first thought, and hold onto it, repeating it, echoing it? How many times can you think your first thought before it becomes your second? When does your first thought become your last thought?

A thought is coming to an end, but not a feeling. Still, it feels the dice have been reloaded. This changing configuration feels like it is about to change all the others. An opportunity has arisen to reconfigure how I choose to be. Nothing has hurt more in my life, but nothing has felt more right. Knowing something is right doesn’t make it any easier to do. Still, there’s no animosity, no anger, no rage. No resentment. Just a deep love and a mutual respect, which has culminated in a painful realisation: it’s time to let go. It’s the best reason you could possibly have to end anything, and perhaps the hardest one to get over.

I’m turning back to Arthur to get me through. He was there at the start. It’s only right he’s there at the end as well. But he sounds different now, and speaks new truths. Love songs that once brought joy, hummed in each other’s ears on Sunday mornings, now feel like laments. What I first heard as hello now sounds like goodbye. I feel more than a little lost.

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