An Album Full of Stark Contrasts, But With a Light That Ultimately Shines Through The Cracks.
For a change, I’m gong to start at the end with this review, as I believe the closing track “Joyful Motherfuckers” holds the oxymoronic key to this release – if ever there was an album which was a cathartic release, this is it.
Allison Russell has seen and experienced a lot of the dark in her life; but her attitude is
“If you’ve got love in your heart,
but it’s way down in the dark
You better let it see the sun.”
– it’s a message of hope that cuts through the centre of everything on this debut Solo Album.
There’s a gratitude for experience that is seen from the off with “Montreal” a jazzy opener that veers between Taylor Swift, Richard Hawley and especially Jane Birkin its delivery.
The last time I saw Allison was alongside husband JT in concert as half of Birds of Chicago was in a tiny pub in Glasgow; and on that occasion she told a lengthy tale of the genetic/spiritual bond that links generations – and “Nightflyer” takes that as its core – again there’s oxymoronic tension in the deep lyrics
“I’m a violent lullaby”,
but set this time it comes out as laid-back Gospel-Soul.
“Persephone” takes a more Countryfied vein and is a celebration of salvation through the strength or existence of a sympathetic other
“My petals are bruised but I’m still a flower”
– placing the past in context and making sense of a person and a time.
“4th Day Prayer” is a really tough listen
“Father used me like a wife
Mother turned the blindest eye
Stole my body, spirit, pride
He did he did each night”
but even amongst this horror, there’s the preservation of strength and an indefatigable desire to survive despite everything …
“One for the hate that loops and loops
Two for the poison at the roots
Three for the children breaking through
Four for the day we’re standing in the sun”
– this section is a unified, determined chant, which underscores the sentiment’s absolute strength at its core.
“The Runner” continues this theme and uses Indie-Soul to tell a tale that listener’s to the Velvet Underground’s “Rock’n’Roll” will be familiar with
– the redemptive power of music.
“Hy-Brasil” is another song that deals with the the theme of ancestry, but this time, it’s a deep dive into the mystical, set against a Celtic heartbeat rhythm and distant echoed parallel vocal, all washed in a serving of reverb.
“The Hunters” returns to the dark story of Russell’s abuse by her step-father and is verbalised in childlike, fairy-tale language.
It’s darker side is insidious – you could hear this on Radio 2 or in a high street chain store and it’s radio-friendly soul would wash over you – until you started to listen a little more closely to the lyrics.
“All of the Women”, set against a simple banjo rhythm creates an ode to the universal –
“the women who disappeared” from a personal story of connection.
“Poison Arrow” is somewhat of an outlier in the settings of the album in that its starting point is based in the present, rather than a past experience – it’s about dealing with a place that was once painful, but which now offers new hope, seen through the fresh eyes of Russell’s young daughter
“Je te souhaîte une deuxième chance” (I wish for you a second chance)”.
Its light Philly Soul reinforces this sense of optimism.
Penultimate track “Little Rebirth” is a musing on our insignificant/significant place in the universe
“Chimes in the morning
Feet to the Earth
We’re all transforming
A little Rebirth”
– set against a sparse arrangement, it places Russell’s voice to the for; adding extra gravitas to the singers’ sentiments – and her use of the French language throughout (which happens frequently across the whole album) adds a cosmopolitan universality too….and then it’s back to where I started, with ‘that’ powerful closing track “Joyful Motherfuckers”….
There are some albums that are just heard and some that need to be intently listened and then thought about – Alison Russell’s debut solo release is very much the latter – it’s an album of stark thematic lyrical contrasts in which the light ultimately shines through.
Review by Nick Barber
Released May 21st 2021
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