Allison Russell has created a masterpiece with Outside Child. As a member of acclaimed supergroup Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla, and one-half of duo Birds of Chicago with partner JT Nero, Russell steps out boldly and bravely with her debut solo album, released May 21. With a voice that is modern, yet timeless, Russell calls to the listener’s soul with eleven compelling compositions wherein the Montreal native explores the deep trauma of her past, processing the abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of her stepfather.
“This is my attempt at truth and reconciliation and forgiveness – a reckoning and a remembrance,” Russell says in a statement about the album that she admits was difficult to write, comparing it to “sucking the poison from a snake bite.” “This is my attempt to be the hero of my own history.” The singer accomplishes this through deep, vivid imagery and awe-inspiring storytelling that captures both darkness and light, offering a profound perspective on the human condition.
Here are five standout tracks from Outside Child.
The album’s third track finds Russell immediately addressing the violent physical abuse she endured throughout her childhood. Persephone, who in mythology is the goddess queen of the underworld and spring growth, materializes in the form of a friend Russell runs to as an escape from the abuse. “My petals are bruised, but I’m still a flower,” Russell observes, flexing all the dynamics in her voice. The song exudes a sense of softness in contrast to the tense subject matter it encompasses, as the steel guitar glimmers like a ray of sunshine that casts light in the darkness.
The cinematic score that opens the song immediately pulls the listener in with its striking blend of horns, gently shuttering symbols and foreboding drums, all establishing an ominous feeling that Russell allows to simmer for nearly a minute before she speaks a word. There’s a sense of heaviness and intrigue as Russell connects another myth to her complex reality; one can almost imagine traversing the Atlantic Ocean to find the unreachable island of Hy Brasil, with its black rabbits and 21 petals of daffodils shrouded in the mists West of Ireland. “Though I drowned for 10 years/I’m still rising/Stronger for my pain and suffering/My body’s been broken/But my heart’s reborn/I’m freer than the sky,” Russell chants, her intoxicating voice calling to her ancestors as she channels the empowering mantra born from pain and sorrow, her unwavering presence felt through the speakers on one of the album’s best.
“All of the Women”
Russell digs deep into her roots on this track, where a steady kettle drum provides a meditative beat throughout the homage to the one in three women who’ve endured violence and sexual abuse – and the many lives lost to such crimes. Experiencing the song is akin to walking through a dense, dark forest where the North Star reveals itself in the form of an unbreakable woman that remains unbroken despite the relentless trauma she’s faced – much like Russell herself. Get ready for chills as she wails, “It’s fear I can bear/’Cause I’m stronger than anxious/I’m tougher than luck/Never been despised so much/Or hit so hard I couldn’t get back up,” with the sound of choral voices backing her to emphasize the immeasurable strength and resiliency she, and the many others who have experienced abuse, carries within. It feels as though Russell is summoning the souls of all the women who “disappeared” and offers a melody that rings in one’s head long after the song is over, alongside a message that resonates even deeper.
On the album’s lead single, Russell demonstrates some of her purest, most universal lyricism, providing a bit of respite from the heavy material, even as she revisits the painful moments from the past. Embracing all elements of the universe, Russell finds herself in the darkness and light, from the dove on the battlefield to a “violent lullaby.” But in line with a recurring theme of the project, Russell experiences a rebirth through lyrics, “I’m the moon’s dark side/I’m the solar flare/The child of the Earth/The child of the Air/I am The Mother of the Evening Star/I am the love that conquers all.”
A title like “Joyful Motherfuckers” is destined to be gold, and Russell certainly does not disappoint. Between a simple, plucked acoustic guitar with sprinkles of piano and soft drums, Russell ends the album on a gentle note that finds joy through the “fearless lovers,” “rainbow shooters,” “hopeful sinners” and “true forgivers.” Trading between English and French, each lyric is rich in wisdom and profound thought in a way that feels as though she’s reconnecting with her childhood self. “You got love in your heart/But it’s way down in the dark/You better let it see the sun/This world is almost done,” she professes, closing the album with the universal call to action: “Show ‘em what you got in your heart.” As Russell processes her trials and triumphs through this unforgettable collection of songs as a stronger, wiser and joyful woman, she provides healing not only for herself, but the world at large.