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Musician Allison Russell is full surprises and ambition on 'The Returner'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell spent years in various bands, including Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters. In those groups, as well as in her solo work, she pushes past genre boundaries of R&B, folk, soul, country and pop music. Russell calls her new album "The Returner" an articulation of rhythm, groove and syncopation. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says it's absorbing and dynamic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEMONS")

ALLISON RUSSELL: (Singing) Demons, demons, demons, demons coming up from behind. Demons, demons, demons, demons - been there all my life. Demons, demons, demons, demons - surely can't outride them. Oh, turn around. Look them in the face. They don't like sunlight tastes. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Allison Russell casting out the demons in her life in what must be one of the most deceptively jaunty exorcisms ever. That song, called "Demons," is typical of the tone of "The Returner," Russell's startling sophomore album following her 2021 debut, "Outside Child." That first album managed to make stirring music out of the harrowing details of Russell's youth as a survivor of sexual abuse and homelessness. On this follow-up, Russell sets herself a different task - to write songs about a more uplifting adulthood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRINGTIME")

: (Singing) So long, farewell, adieu, adieu. So long, farewell, adieu, adieu. To that tunnel I went through. To that tunnel I went through. And my reward, my recompense? My reward, my recompense? The springtime of my present tense. The springtime of my present tense. But I used to think that I was doomed to die young, to be consumed. All lullabies were violent. Those winters of my discontent. So long, farewell...

TUCKER: All lullabies were violent, Russell sings in that song, "Springtime," which, as the title suggests, is ultimately about a time of fresh beginnings - a rebirth, a coming into the light after what she calls that tunnel I went through. This album, "The Returner," is frequently as upbeat and celebratory as her previous collection was dark and foreboding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHADOWLANDS")

: (Singing) I woke up from a goddamn nightmare just to find the house was on fire. Ran outside. The flames, they were everywhere reaching on up to the sky. Maybe it was a dream within a dream. It doesn't matter anyhow. I can bring the cool rain when I want to. I know how to gather the clouds. It's all in me. Oh. It's all in...

TUCKER: Russell recorded "The Returner" with an all-woman band that includes Brandi Carlile as well as Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, best known as Wendy & Lisa, the duo that backed Prince and had their own solo career. In the liner notes, Russell makes a point of saying that she recorded this album in the same Los Angeles studio where Joni Mitchell recorded "Blue" and where Carole King cut "Tapestry." This tells you a lot about her mindset. She's measuring her new work against some of the greatest singer-songwriter confessional songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RETURNER")

: (Singing) Goodbye, so long, farewell. All I've been. Oh, oblivion. Throw me in the ocean, oh, see if I can swim. I'm wild again. I'm a star child again. I come 10 million miles, oh, I'm burning. I'm a summer dream. I'm a real light beam. I'm worthy of all the goodness and the love that the world's gonna give to me. I'm gonna give it back 10 times. People, are you ready? If you think you're alone, hold on - I'm coming.

TUCKER: That's the title song of "The Returner." Over the course of this album, Russell makes a kind of rhythm and blues that mixes gospel with soul. She frequently uses Lisa Coleman's piano playing as the organizing instrument around which she builds her vocals and melodic hooks. The collection is full of funk and grooves and surprises and ambition. On the centerpiece of the album, a six-minute composition called "Eve Was Black." Russell picks up her banjo and plucks out a version of the blues to sing about enslavement and of furious freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVE WAS BLACK")

: (Singing) Why do you try to touch my hair? Do you hope to find a blessing there? Why do you try to keep me down? Do you hope to sow this barren ground? With my Black blood? Black magic blood? With my Black blood? Black magic blood? Do I remind you of what you lost? Do you hate or do you lust? Do you despise or do you yearn to return, to return, to return back to the motherland. Back to the garden. Back to your Black skin. Back to the innocence. Back to the shine you lost when you enslaved your kin.

TUCKER: Allison Russell's album titles are self-descriptions. Once she was the outside child, now she's the returner. Returning, that is, to the scenes of emotional crimes committed and if not solved, thoroughly investigated without self-pity or sentimentality, which has now led to an artistic liberation that sounds - in song after song - positively exhilarating.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Allison Russell's new album, "The Returner." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the military is struggling to modernize its weapon systems. The Army and Navy are testing weapons with remarkable capabilities using cutting-edge, digital technology and AI. My guest will be Eric Lipton of The New York Times, who's conducted an investigation into the weapons, the need to modernize and the obstacles in the way. I hope you'll join us. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.