Notes on Allison Russell’s The Returner
By Hanif Abdurraqib
The book I loved most as a child was The People Could Fly, Virginia Hamilton’s book of black folktales about not only escape, but the brilliance of life beyond whatever was left behind. The cover, a group of black folks in colorful headscarves and tattered but well-fitting suits, ascending beyond the clouds, into a sky that was blue, and tilting towards orange. It is what some would consider to be a children’s book, or a book suited for a child’s imagination. But the child’s imagination is not far from where we, grown folks in an ever-burning atmosphere, return to. Another escape, if you will.
I believe Allison Russell to be a writer in many traditions, but I am now, upon sitting with the beauty of The Returner, considering Russell in the tradition of Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton, a black woman writer who understood the urgency of the times she was living in, and responded in an urgent fashion. Urgency, not in a sense of frantic output, or exhortations of chaos. But urgency in building a different version of events, and bringing as many people into the world as possible. Whoever wants to come along is welcome to come along.
While I hesitate to say that anything comes easy to a writer, but it does feel especially challenging to situate oneself in the present. The past is a place rich with both the fluorescence of nostalgia and the challenges of our own memory, and the future is, to some degree, unknown. Can be written by us as we tumble towards it. The Returner is an achievement for how it sits, firm and unflinching, in the present, or in a space that demands the present be something beyond simply discomfort. I take seriously the charge of song lyric-as-poetry, which is one way of saying that while I do like the idea of the lyric overrun with literary devices, it doesn’t do as much for me if the devices aren’t grounded in some kind of narrative blooming. Allison Russell is, in my mind, a writer’s writer. It is wonderful to read and apply what one loves about literature to the work of a song, but it is another thing to think of the song as a piece of literature, the two inextricably linked in both approach and execution. And so, a song like “Eve Was Black,” wherein the biblical callback goes a step further, channeling an origin story of rage, of dismissal, reformatting of a holy text to map it upon present tension.
On Outside Child, Russell’s heavily lauded 2021 debut solo effort, there was a reckoning with all that her past self made it through. It was a daring, brave album. One where the speaker in the songs is both child and survivor, looking back on the child’s life. And, still, for all of Outside Child’s bravery, The Returner rises to an equal challenge of brave ambition. After not only presenting that history of a self to the world, but untangling it on her own, Russell made an album that brings her back to her present self. One that delights in her present self. And album that is abundant in scope, in color (sonic color and vocal color, but also, very plainly, in it’s stunning album cover,) and abundant in possibility for a variety of next turns.
I am overjoyed by the act of communal singing, and even more so when it just so happens to be black folks in communion doing the singing, shouting, clapping, stomping, and whatever else moves them to make noise. The Returner, for all of its gifts, is an album that feels like an invitation, the way walking by a loud, boisterous church service where the praise and worship spills out into the sidewalk might seem like an invitation, even if you aren’t the churchgoing type, but you just don’t want to miss a good time, a loud time. This is an album of beautiful, holy noise. You can hear individual notes of laughter, you can hear each individual voice reaching for the next individual voice to link hands with and ascend.
I am not much of a fool for optimism, but I am always seeking some optimisms within very specific truths. One of those being how do we, as people, pour generously back into ourselves in the midst of a world, a time, an ongoing era that takes and takes, relentlessly. It happens in small bursts, I think. Short paths, maybe, but wide ones. That’s where freedom lives. A place where you have survived and what you survived isn’t left behind, but it also isn’t the burden it once might have been. How fitting, that the album begins with the luminous “Springtime,” Russell singing so long / farewell / adieu adieu / to that tunnel I went through. And from there, light floods in.
For tour dates and more visit: allisonrussellmusic.com/