Allison Russell – The Returner
Allison Russell’s solo debut, 2021’s Outside Child, was equal parts tragedy and triumph.The songs detailed her abusive upbringing (at the hands of her stepfather and with the acquiescence of her mother). That’s the tragedy – the triumph came from finding the ability to love and, via music, to overcome that rude beginning. But even an overwhelming personal success – not only musically, but finding a partner and having a child – doesn’t erase that trauma, and that’s where Russell finds herself in 2023. Her new album, The Returner, is a louder, more raucous, stomp-and-clap affair than Outside Child, but underneath all of the layers of sound remains a living, breathing, scarred woman, asking herself, “What’s next?”
The Returner begins, appropriately, with “Springtime,” which opens with strings, laughter and what Russell lovingly calls her “Rainbow Coalition Choir” of friends. Lyrically, though, she flashes back to those cold Montreal nights found on Outside Child – “Well, I used to think that I was doomed/To die young to be consumed/All lullabies were violent/Those winters of my discontent.” Russell, though, is also ready to acknowledge the “reward” for surviving what she went through – “The springtime of my present tense.” It’s a second chance she doesn’t intend on wasting, and those friends are happy to help out. Joy Clark chips in on acoustic guitar on a number of tracks, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (of Prince’s Revolution) show up on guitars and keys, and there’s even a super guest star-y chorus at the end of the record.
Russell still has more to work through, though, both personally and societally. “Eve Was Black” (with strings arranged by Chauntee and Monique Ross of SistaStrings) is a simmering six-minute piece about the origins of us and of racism (and, appropriately, features the album’s first notes from Russell’s banjo). Russell fairly taunts the bigots among us – “Do I remind you of what you lost?/Do you hate or do you lust?” – before addressing centuries of outright violence – “What do you hope for as you tie the rope/What do you hope for as you hoist me up?” The song, though, concludes with a gorgeous banjo and violin-led coda where Russell celebrates (in French) her roots – “From Africa to the Americas/One family, one family.” Her own, small family (her musical and life partner, JT Nero, and the couple’s daughter) find their way into Russell’s songs in the deceptively disco-esque “Stay Right Here,” where the singer is fighting dissociation – “All that my body can never forget/Why do good things make me cry?” – in order to stay present for what matters now – “No!No! I’ll stay right here/Wanna hear my daughter laughing.”
There are plenty of similarly loud, cathartic moments across The Returner, but the album wraps with “Requiem,” a move to put a period of sorts on this chapter of Russell’s life. Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark and Hozier join The Rainbow Coalition in assisting Russell in passing on the joy – and only the joy – to the next generation – “So it is yours to sing/My child my wild brightling.” All of this heavy material could make for a downer of a record, but Allison Russell embodies resilience and, almost always, ebullience. In full, The Returner chooses celebration over sorrow. And, even though all the handclaps, foot stomps and hollers in the world can’t fully erase the noise of trauma, they sure as hell can drown it out, even when it’s at its loudest.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Demons” – probably the most defiantly celebratory song on the record – “Turn around, look ‘em in the face/They don’t like how sunlight tastes.” Our sh!t never fully leaves us, but we can learn to put it in its place.
The Returner was produced by Dim Star (JT Nero and Drew Lindsay) and Allison Russell, engineered and mixed by Brandon Bell and mastered by Kim Rosen. All songs written by Russell, Nero and Lindsay. Musicians on the album include Russell (lead vocals, harmony vocals, banjo, clarinet, water phone, handclaps, foot stomping), Chauntee Ross of SistaStrings (harmony vocals, violin, handclaps), Elenna Canlas (harmony vocals, synthesizers, Fender Rhodes, Piano, percussion, handclaps), Elizabeth Pupo-Walker (Gon Bop Congas, LP Bongos, West African Toms, Log Drum, array of small percussion, handclaps), Ganessa James (harmony vocals, electric bass, handclaps), Joy Clark (harmony vocals, acoustic guitar), Kerenza Peacock (violin), Larissa Maestro (harmony vocals, cello, handclaps), Lisa Coleman (harmony vocals, piano, synthesizers), Mandy Fer of Sway Wild (harmony vocals, electric guitar, handclaps), Megan Coleman (drums, percussion, handclaps), Meg McCormick (harmony vocals, electric guitars, electric bass), Monique Ross of SistaStrings (harmony vocals, cello, handclaps), Wendy Melvoin (harmony vocals, electric guitars, bass, baritone electric guitar), Wiktoria Bialic (drums, percussion, handclaps) and Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark and Hozier (background vocals).
Go here to order The Returner (out September 8): https://store.fantasyrecordings.com/collections/allison-russell
Check out tour dates here: https://allisonrussellmusic.com/tour/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Allison Russell Outside Child