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The Returner (Fantasy)

THIS IS A FOLK RECORD OF DEEP GROOVES, or a roots record of danceable concern, or a funk/soul record of elemental foundations. It is too a record of historic and personal pain made defiant and almost joyful, or a record of triumph and recovery that won’t shake off its troubled roots. Or really, all of that.

Which is a lot, and maybe at times too much for anyone unconvinced by its ambitions, but that is their problem because Canadian-relocated-to-the-South Allison Russell isn’t going to die wondering.

Nor is she going to leave without asking the kind of provocative questions some people find uncomfortable, or uncomfortably close to the truth. “Eve was black, didn’t you know/Is that why you hate my black skin so?” she asks, pointedly, midway through the album when the unsuspecting might think the stories here might be all “safely, from a distance” personal. “Does it remind you of what you lost?/Do you hate or do you lust?”

For her second solo album (separate from her contribution to the Afro-Caribbean-North American quartet, Our Native Daughters), Russell has kept some loose musical connections to her debut, 2021’s Outside Child, which existed in a sometimes-reverent blend of earthy soul and rootsy country.

There are flashes of banjo, moments of gospel, a string band song that starts at foot-tapping and then bulks up its tread, a lightly jazzed blues and a churchified bit of folk that weaves its way into jazz (and some French). None of it is tokenistic, but it all plays a secondary role this time around as Russell leans into rhythmic soul and its offshoots, with a more studied, less organic sound.

Stay Right Here and its less striding sibling, Shadowlands, are midpoint between Pointer Sisters and a Moroder-less Donna Summer, the former’s strings firmly planting the song in a ‘70s disco; the latter leaning a bit more towards the pre-disco New York clubs. Either way, the emphasis is on movement and flourishing enjoyment, something which has already been made clear in All Without Within which while addressing a very adult case of desire, navigates the same funk to early hip-hop line that Tom Tom Club once did: an almost childlike enthusiasm bubbling away ready for skip rope or some pop-and-lock.

If the strings of Stay Right Here smooth the dance, those deployed in the title track comfort the ache, making what already is deep soul something enriching, and wordlessly emphasising Russell’s lyrical message that pain doesn’t have to beget pain. “I’m worthy of all the goodness and the love that the world is going to give to me,” she says. And better yet, “Ima give it back 10 times people, are you ready?”

Pain? Yeah she’s had it. The lingering effects of a traumatic, damaging childhood, which was explored in some detail on Outside Child, drip through several songs here, sometimes directly, sometimes as subtext. That they come with, first of all, the fact of survival, and then the truth of recovery and rebuild, imbue them with a strong sheen of positivity. But that doesn’t wipe away the original sins.

In Rag Child, which has the dragging rhythm and electric piano of the electro ‘80s paired with an almost regal vocal, Russell describes a “child in rags, three times cursed”, one who will “walk with death/Gonna sing until you love yourself”. But if the song begins with her saying “I didn’t know all the load I could carry/Til I sank to my knees in the merciless sun”, it ends with elevation and “I didn’t know all the joy I could levy/Till I rose to my feet in the merciful sun”.

By the time the hymn-as-a-country-ballad Requiem – which has more than a passing connection to Green Green Grass Of Home, except sung by the Staple Singers, or maybe The McGarrigles – sends us away, the pain hasn’t gone but it has “set your embers on the summer wind”.

That might be enough, for if Outside Child was the release, The Returner is the reclamation of the girl who was by the woman who is. As Russell sings (translated here from her French), “Courage, sing loudly/The lost will hear you/And follow the sound of ten thousand voices in joy.”

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