top of page

Allison Russell: Another Song of the Week from my Album of the Year

Updated: Jan 3

Neil Morton

The most surprising aspect about Allison Russell’s stirring song Demons is that it took her so long to release a track with that title. We could not think of any artist more qualified or entitled to utter the word. Our Song Of The Week at is the second soulful cut to be plucked from The Returner, my album of the year.

Our assumption is that the Montreal-born songwriter with Grenadian and Scottish ancestry could only write a song called Demons once she had conquered them. She has been facing them down her whole life. We have discussed at length Russell’s harrowing back story – her transformation after a childhood of trauma and abuse by a white supremacist stepfather which forced her to live on the streets of Montreal, forever grateful for the help of other victims on the margins.

As we wrote after the release of her deeply moving debut solo album, Outside Child: ‘It is difficult to grasp how a person could survive such an ordeal and recover sufficiently to create art this beautiful, this hopeful, this important.’ That album was a musical memoir; the written one she is still working on is keenly awaited even if we might be seeking a stronger word than harrowing.

The Returner, the cathartic sequel, speaks as powerfully and eloquently. Welcome to a celebration of survival, a triumph of resilience. Russell says of our song choice: ‘Demons is about looking our traumas, our fears, our pain in the face – and not letting them drive the bus. We all have our demons and there’s no spell to make them vanish for good. I’m not even sure we want such a spell. Demons have their uses. They just don’t get to call the shots anymore – we put them on the bus but they don’t get to drive, and they can’t steal our joy. It’s a call to courage and coalition. Imagine a world where our ideologies never subsume our equal and shared humanity.’

Demons, demons

Comin’ up from behind

Demons, demons

Been there all my life

Demons, demons

Surely can’t outride ’em

Oh turn around look ’em in the face

They don’t like how sunlight tastes

No, no, no, no, no

Ah-ha, hush that fuss

Send your demons to the back of the bus

No matter how they holler

No matter how they moan

They can’t change where they are going

Demons, like the rest of the album, was a writing collaboration with the duo known as dim star, her partner and Birds Of Chicago bandmate JT Nero and his brother Drew Lindsay, Russell’s co-producers. Recording was completed in six days at the old A&M (now Henson) Studios in Hollywood, where Joni Mitchell recorded Blue and Carole King created Tapestry. She is backed by the all-female supporting cast she calls her Rainbow Coalition with guest appearances from her great champion Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Hozier and Wendy & Lisa, former members of Prince’s Revolution. Russell’s love of community and extended music family drive out those demons in gospel call-and-response style.

Freedom riders sing, freedom singers ride

Lift us up to that good fight

Can we carry that song, that shield, that crown

Every last child in every last town

Nashville-based Russell calls the album ‘a celebratory soundtrack for getting tired of hating yourself and deciding you’re worthy’ and ‘a body-shaking, mind-expanding, soulful expression of liberation, love, and self-respect that serves as a fierce declaration of joy for all survivors that have made it to the other side’. The French Canadian’s clarinet and banjo create gorgeous interludes and codas but it is her rich voice, aching from the damage of her past, that resonates longest.

The album title was inspired by the almost miraculous comeback by Joni Mitchell who had to learn to walk again, sing again and perform again after serious health issues. ‘Being a returner is stealing joy from the teeth of turmoil,’ says Russell about the second album of what will be a trilogy of defiant redemption songs. The third will be about the future, and it promises to be even more joyous.

Our first Song Of The Week from The Returner was the brooding Snakelife, one of many standouts. We could have easily opted for her opening mission statement Springtime, the soul-soaked title track with beautiful strings attached (Barack Obama’s 2023 playlist choice), Requiem where ‘bullets fly faster than mother’s lullabies’, or the simmering anti-racism anthem Eve Was Black in which she calls out the bigots among us. To this extraordinary album, an intoxicating fusion of soul, gospel, R&B and funk, we shall return and return.

Here are my 30 favourite albums of the year, in no particular order and unranked beyond the exception of Russell’s classic. Recommended tracks appear in italics.

My 30 favourite albums of 2023

Allison Russell: The Returner

Gabriels: Angels & Queens Deluxe

Thea Gilmore: Thea Gilmore

Far From Saints: Far From Saints

Michele Stodart: Invitation

Lori McKenna: 1988

Roseanne Reid: Lawside

Hannah White: Sweet Revolution

The Breath: Land Of My Other

Chris Brain: Steady Away

Rachel Sermanni: Dreamer Awake

Track Dogs: Blind Summits & Hidden Dips

Julie Byrne: The Greater Wings

Darlingside: Everything Is Alive

Caitlin Canty: Quiet Flame

Rhiannon Giddens: You’re The One

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Weathervanes

Lucy Farrell: We Are Only Sound

Josienne Clarke: Onliness

Lisa O’Neill: All Of This Is Chance

Jon Wilks: Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost

The Furrow Collective: We Know By The Moon

Sunny War: Anarchist Gospel

Bennett Wilson Poole: I Saw A Star Behind Your Eyes, Don’t Let It Die Away

Brandy Clark: Brandy Clark

The Coral: Sea Of Mirrors

Jess Williamson: Time Ain’t Accidental

Jim Moray: Beflean: An Alternative History 2002-2023

Kris Drever: The Best Of Kris Drever

Fruit Bats: A River Running To Your Hearts

My favourite EPs of the year

Jenny Colquitt: Lost Animals

Silkroad Ensemble: Phoenix Rising

Amy Hollinrake: Sad Lady Songs Vol 1

Hattie Whitehead: Mechanism

Emily Barker/Carducci String Quartet: A Dark Murmuration Of Strings

Daisy Chute: Maiden, Mother, Crone

Elanor Moss: Cosmic

Hannah Scott: Ancient Lights

Bandcamp recommendations

Ian Tasker: It’s Later Than You Think

Another Sleepless Night: The Songs Of Neil Morton


167 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page