Having spent more than half a century making history onstage, legend Leon Russell passed away in November 2016. His final album, “On a Distant Shore”, was released last week.
The album is a great example of the kind of dusty blues that Russell made his home, and it’s been welcomed as one of the most unflinching and unapologetic farewell albums released in recent times. As the title suggests, it’s the work of a man who has been looking towards death for some time, daring fate to dance with him with a small. The album gives us an insight not merely into Russell, the artist, but also into Russell, the man. In the album’s title track, Russell croons (almost like it was a coincidence), “Sounds like a funeral for some person here. And I might be the one.”
The album is conscious of death, but it’s neither mordant nor maudlin. Listening to the title track, you realize that Russell, perhaps, had a great time recording these numbers. In fact, speaking of how Russell felt about the album, his wife Jan Bridges explained, “He said it was his favorite album he ever made. He just loved it. He felt like everything clicked into place.”
The individual tracks in the album play like a tour of Russell’s soul-jazz-rock career. “Love This Way” is a rock and roll number that takes you back to the 1970’s with such immediacy that you could almost be wearing a nylon suit. With Russell’s powerful voice carrying the song along, and Russ Pahl’s steel guitar strategically interrupting the notes at all the right intervals (and featuring a guest vocal appearance apparently by a wolf), it’s a cheery, gets-your-feet tapping number that is true to Russell’s extraordinary style. Word has it that Russell had initially intended this piece to be a bluegrass track with banjo, but like several tracks, he was spirited away by the song in a direction that’s somehow like a time capsule and surprise at the same time. No word exists yet on whether the wolf was recorded live.
“Easy to Love” is a lively, underplayed jazz number that transports you to the 80s and leaves you swaying to its rhythm, and on “This Masquerade,” Russell gives us a short, upbeat opening before snapping out a world-weary, take-no-shit question: “Are we really happy with this lonely game we play?” It’s a great example of how Russell’s voice – still powerful and deceptively rich – can dominate a song, an instrument worthy of the musicians around it.
For the grand finale to this goodbye album, Russell chooses to reflect, circling all the way back to his 1970 hit “A Song for You”. Separated from it by almost half a century, he pulls out a thread of triumph and sorrow from lyrics that are about a future that’s all behind him; but there’s no regret, only the sound of a job well done. The art of the farewell is tricky, and many artists don’t make it to death before they close out their careers; with “On a Distant Shore”, Russell says goodbye in a way that’s appropriate to his life’s work.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/CC – ShakeFrog