Singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and activist Allison Russell is as much a poet as a musician. In her latest release, The Returner, it’s evident that Russell isn’t afraid to reckon with the darkness hidden in her past while returning to her present self in an embodied manner.
Her previous album, Outside Child, excavated the experience of abuse she endured as a child, while her latest is her transition to the now. She does this by harnessing a relentless strength to endure, all while infusing joy and transforming adversity into an “ethic of love” in the same way scholar, author, educator, and activist bell hooks proposes in the essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.”
The Returner, which was recorded over Solstice week in December 2022, takes Russell’s folk/soul/Americana roots and responds to the urgency of the times. She has an air of readiness to her and seems steered toward hope. She is bold, strong-willed, and not afraid to spill over in her reaching. Her conviction can be heard within her voice’s inflection, seen in her smile, and felt in the words she casts light on. She isn’t afraid to explore new sounds, which can be found throughout this collection of genre-bending songs.
The opening track, “Springtime,” with its call-and-response verse, cello note increases, and string arrangements drive the album forward. Russell’s clarinet solos often rise to the surface, infusing melancholic and warm energy within the songs. “The Returner” is an affirmation in song form, with rich, heart-bending lyrics that make one feel as though expansion is possible. “Demons” and “Eve Was Black” feel reminiscent of the music cultivated by the descendants of enslaved people as an expression of freedom in the South. “Stay Right Here” is a song for the generations, with its infectious and funky grooves, it carries an energy similar to greats like Diana Ross, Prince, and Tina Turner.
Whether it’s through banjo-driven licks, the communal singing and soul ballads expressed by an impressive roster of guest appearances from Wendy & Lisa, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, and Hozier, or how Russell maintains a throughline of gratitude, you can sense her origin is one of storytelling. If you’re looking for an enduring album to seek refuge and celebrate the ambivalence of life, this one’s for you.