Allison Russell’s Beautiful, Harrowing ‘Outside Child’ Is a Musical Memoir Nonpareil: Album Review

Russell's solo debut reaches back into the details of an unspeakably abusive upbringing for an almost indescribably rewarding album.

allison russell album review
Courtesy Fantasy Records

It might be premature to proclaim Allison Russell’s solo debut the album of the year — some of her collaborators and boosters have their own records that may merit being in the running, for starters — but “Outside Child” sure has the inside track. With 2021 not yet at the halfway point, it’s hard to imagine many other albums coming along that could match the combination of emotional potency, melodic fluency, social significance and heartrending beauty in Russell’s retelling of a lifetime’s worth of debasement and self-reclamation. Musical memoirs don’t come braver, or better.

“A concept album about childhood sexual abuse and recovery” is not the sort of thing that lends itself to hype stickers, but once you do break the shrink-wrap on the vinyl or CD (and this is one case where you really need to buy the physical product, for the artist’s extensive liner notes), Russell’s song-by-song commentary unabashedly lays bare autobiographical details that make the songs even more riveting than they might be on a less informed listen. She’s been just as upfront about the album’s autobiographical narrative in media interviews, too. In short order, the better part of “Outside Child” has to do with the horrors the singer, now 39, experienced for 10 of her most formative years at the hands of a shameless adoptive father and a schizophrenic mother who looked away from a daughter’s sexual trauma. As subject matter for an album, it may sound off-putting; it should.

Yet there’s so much unsentimental uplift infused throughout the album — and, on a more practical level, just so many smart musical choices —  that never for a moment does it feel like you’re doing some kind of social-justice duty by listening in. Can an album be a trip through hell and also something you put on again and again for pleasure? “Outside Child” walks that line, with its harrowing truths and ultimately joyful noise. Come for the catharsis and stay for the high level of musical craft… or, you know, vice versa.

Prior to making this riveting solo bow, Russell was known to a very small segment of the musical cognoscenti as a member of the Canadian-based bands Birds of Chicago and Po’ Boy. She became more recognizable in the last two years as part of the Black, female, banjo-picking collective Our Native Daughters, a quartet that had Rhiannon Giddens as the marquee name to draw listeners in to a well-matched quartet of talents. Part of what Our Native Daughters dealt with in their historically inclined, folk-style album was slave narratives, so you might’ve thought Russell might favor slightly lighter fare for her solo follow-up, but no.

Yet “Outside Child” feels about a hundred pounds lighter, however unflinching the story and themes. Russell, her co-writer/husband JT Nero and producer Dan Knobler employ a variety of styles and moods that make the album feel like a 50-minute epic journey with lots of small salvations and micro-empowerments on the way to a well-healed close. The album opens with a torch song to a city, “Montreal,” which she renders almost as a surrogate, protecting parent that took care of her when she ran away from home, spending her late adolescence living on its streets and sleeping in its cemeteries. “Persephone” is a swoony, nostalgic, folk-pop ode to a girl whose nurturing got her through some of the hardest times at home in her teen years. It includes brutal asides like “Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons / Might’ve killed me that time if I let him,” and also outrightly sensual language and self-affirmations — “My petals are bruised, but I’m still a flower” — on the way to becoming maybe the sweetest, most romantic song ever to incorporate domestic violence as a backstory.

“4th Day Prayer” establishes a Memphis-style groove that initially seems almost too soulful and dignified for a first verse that gets to the heart of her trauma (“Father used me like a knife / Mother turned the blindest eye”), but by the chorus, the song really has established itself as a secular prayer: “I rose again,” Russell sings, waking up in the Montreal graveyard where she spent her runaway nights, as the McCrary sisters, the album’s frequently used backup singers, murmur some gospel-style assent.

Russell is French-Canadian, but there’s enough adopted Southernness creeping into the Nashville-produced album that the Americana tag feels apt. Her “Nightflyer” sounds like something that could’ve been on a Shelby Lynne or Allison Moorer album, saluting the easy feel of Alabama instead of the metropolitan north. But she has bigger fish to fry than local municipalities, as the album frequently settles into the world of mythos. “I’m the moon’s dark side, I’m the solar flare,” she sings, on that same universe-encompassing “Nightflyer.” “HIs soul is trapped in that room / But I crawled back into my mother’s womb,” she sings; “Came back out with my greens and golds / Now I see everything… / What the hell could they bring to stop me Lord?… / Not a God Almighty thing!” By the end of the tune she’s “The Mother of the Evening Star” (capitalizations hers), but underneath  overcoming, the music is still easy like Sunday morning. The sound takes a rockier turn on the Yola-aided “The Runner,” in which she “heard that Rock and Roll / Outside the South Hill Candy Store… / And I saw my deliverance,” having her life saved by the power of rock even more convincingly than Lou Reed put it.

But there is still more mess to be mopped up. “Hy-Brazil” takes a deep detour into pure myth, sounding like a lost Irish or Scottish folk song from a more distant century, as Russell communes with the mysterious island creatures her Scottish Canadian grandmother told her about as she fantasizes escape from the mundanity of abuse. The album reaches its moving symbolic apotheosis in “The Hunters,” which has Russell siding and communing with wolves coming down from the forests over her “hunter” parents, the real deadly enemies in her telling. Mixing menace with haunting loveliness, it’s a song that reflects a rare gift for using harsh metaphor to translate an almost unspeakable reality.

As “The Hunter” shifts from minor chords in the frightening verses to major ones in the uplifting choruses, it also shifts from English-language lyrics to French — far from the only time that happens in “Outside Child.” Translations for these multi-lingual moments are provided in the lyric booklet, but it’s almost just as satisfying to imagine these songs as spirituals, in which Russell lapses into glosolalia at the most transcendent moments. Or maybe it just feels like she’s slipping into a different language as a form of secret code, as a child whose survival was pinned to corporal discretion might have learned to.

Maybe the only time the sound of the album really gets as rugged as the subject matter is the starkly folky “All of the Women,” which has Russell taking a break from her own tale to relay the also real-life story of a sex worker she used to counsel in Vancouver. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise from the liner notes to learn that her childhood experiences made the singer enough of an empath that she became a mental-health worker for a number of years as an adult. She also picked up some skills as a musical actress along the way: Embodying the voice of “Shirley,” a proud prostitute she came to befriend, Russell employs a volume and rasp she only occasionally allows herself when she’s singing as herself.

The album’s last few numbers settle into a kind of post-traumatic-stress divinity, capped by a hopeful finale, “Joyful Motherfuckers,” that probably gives away just enough with its title. The answer to the question “Where are all the joyful motherfuckers?” may lie in the credits: they were obviously gathered at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, where the album was recorded in just four days in the fall of 2019. The record has been described by Russell as having been cut live in the studio, with mostly second takes used of everyone singing and playing at once… somewhat hard to fathom, given the careful layering in Knobler’s production, but apparently there’s a lot to be said for expert planning, engineering and mixing as well as performances that breathe and allow for extra layers of mystery. In the album’s sound as well as its spirit, a well-toiled earthiness is next to godliness.

Instrumental flourishes are low-key, including some perfectly applied steel guitar that doesn’t take the album any closer to country than it needs to be. For her own instrumental part, along with the occasional banjo riffing you might be expecting, since she did take part in one of history’s few banjo supergroups, she also favors some clarinet-solo codas. (Of course Russell is going to favor “outsider” instruments, right?) These quiet reed finales are actual waiting-to-exhale moments from a woman who’s fashioned an entire album out of one long breath being finally let out.

After Russell dealt with the lifelong repercussions of childhood sexual abuse on this album (and racism, too, as her abuser was white, and as a result was handled more gently by the authorities she finally called in, she believes), and after she tackled the legacy of slavery on the Our Native Daughters album before that, you might wish for Russell that she’d get to carry a less weighty load on whatever her next project is… like maybe an album about a GTO, or something. But in the end, “Outside” is escapist in the best, most literal sense, with a buoyancy that lyric excerpts and thematic recaps can’t do justice to. The album’s hooks leave you with the impression that Russell and company could probably make a great pop record, too, if they wanted to, but she’s clearly exactly where she belongs: in the genre of joyful motherfuckery.