Since the release of her first solo album two years ago, the self-taught singer, songwriter, poet, activist, and multi-instrumentalist, Allison Russell has redefined what artistry means in the 21st century. Outside Child, her often devastating, deeply moving, cathartic celebration of survivor’s joy, has become one of the most acclaimed albums of the past 10 years (various honors include three GRAMMY Award nominations, the Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year, the 2022 Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year Award, two International Folk Music Awards, three Canadian Folk Music Awards, and four UK Americana Music Awards). Further still, Allison has consistently used her newfound platform to elevate, educate and inspire; curating the history making Once And Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution set for the Newport Folk Festival in 2021 and mobilizing this year’s triumphant Love Rising All-Star benefit concert in support of LGBTQIA+ causes in Nashville, are just two of the many examples where she’s raised her voice with power and purpose.
Now comes the second chapter in herstory, The Returner, a body-shaking, mind-expanding, soulful expression of Black liberation, Black love, of Black self-respect. Written and co-produced by Allison along with Dim Star (her partner JT Nero and his brother Drew Lindsay), The Returner was recorded over Solstice week in December 2022 at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles, and features an astounding all-female musical collective Allison dubbed The Rainbow Coalition: Allison Russell (lead vocals, harmony vocals, banjo, clarinet), Chauntee Ross (SistaStrings) (harmony vocals, violin), Elenna Canlas (harmony vocals, synthesizers, keyboards, percussion), Elizabeth Pupo-Walker (percussion), Ganessa James (harmony vocals, electric bass), Joy Clark (harmony vocals, acoustic guitar), Kerenza Peacock (violin), Larissa Maestro (harmony vocals, cello), Lisa Coleman (harmony vocals, piano, synthesizers), Mandy Fer (Sway Wild) (harmony vocals, electric guitar), Megan Coleman (drums, percussion), Meg McCormick (harmony vocals, electric guitars, electric bass), Monique Ross (SistaStrings) (harmony vocals, cello), Wendy Melvoin (harmony vocals, electric guitars, bass), and Wiktoria Bialic (drums, percussion). Special Guests: Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark and Hozier joined the Rainbow Coalition Choir on “Requiem.”
Breaking free from Outside Child’s acoustic-based contours, Allison, JT, and Drew, built The Returner from the bottom up. The rhythm-first, genre-fluid approach¾and the improvisational energy of great female artists, sparked the album’s fierce joy and provided a wider canvas for Allison’s immense, unlimited talent. The scars remain, but, as Allison sings in “Snake Life”:
every scar and every bruise / shine like blue Botswana jewels /
what did not kill me, filled me / with the power of a thousand suns.
In all, the new album doesn’t just deliver on the massive promise of the last two years, it brilliantly exceeds all reasonable (and unreasonable) expectations and affirms Allison Russell’s place among music’s most vital artists¾and The Returner as one of 2023’s most essential recordings.