Which Side Are You On by Ani DiFranco
Twenty-two years, four presidents, three wars, one global financial meltdown and one less Soviet Socialist Republic—there are many ways to mark the passage of time since the first Bush administration, but why not go with 17? That is the number of studio albums released by Ani DiFranco since 1990, a staggering rate that has brought us some of the cleverest turns of phrase in music of the last quarter century.
DiFranco’s new album, Which Side Are You On?, is an interesting specimen, one that follows suit with other artists with similarly lengthy careers. Age, it seems, finds our politically minded, feminist folk singer mellowing, though not in the way you’d expect. Her politics are more overt, her barbs more pointed, her rebukes more harsh—her lyrics are still on message; it’s the lyricism that has mellowed.
Part of why DiFranco was always such a patron saint of the college dorm room is that she sung with such poetic insight, carving up relationships and politics with the razor sharp edge of her figurative phrasings and her irony. DiFranco showed us who we were by forcing us to see the common dynamics of human relationships through the gorgeous stained glass of her lyrics. That’s why a line from her first album, like “Your bones have been my bedframe and your flesh has been my pillow,” could send us to spasms as we thought about our own lovers. A few years later when she sang, “Better to be dusty than polished like some store window mannequin, why don't you touch me where I'm rusty, let me stain your hands,” we were able to see the glory in our own inadequacies (of which there are many in the teens and twenties).
DiFranco’s new album is simply more literal, and it feels less Ani. It’s the same thing that happened to Bono, as U2 moved from the sardonic cynicism of Achtung Baby to the straight-forward schmaltz of No Line on the Horizon. Maybe it’s just what happens as we get older—irony loses its power to show us new things, because most things are not new anymore.
Which Side Are You On? features all new songs save for the title track, an old protest song that DiFranco has rewritten to reflect the politics of the current times. The song, once covered by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, features the nonagenarian Seeger himself. With the recent flaming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the song seems fresh and is performed with a biting edge.
“Amendment” might have one of the more pleasing riffs of any recent DiFranco song, beginning with a stomping minor key before opening into an airy reverbed chorus in a pretty major key. The lyrics though dissolve into preaching: “We gotta put down abortion, put it down in the books for good, as central to the civil rights of women.” Instead of holding an issue to the light and letting the facets reveal themselves, DiFranco dispenses with creative interpretation, as if she senses she is running out of time and needs us to know exactly what she thinks. I miss the old DiFranco, who might have sung “Abortion is like a tree” and then let me wonder for days over what that means.
On the other hand, Which Side Are You On? seems to find DiFranco at peace, despite the urgency of the politics. In her issues songs she no longer sounds angry (as on 1996’s Dilate) which is neither good nor bad. And now in New Orleans, happily married with a daughter, the turbulence of relationships that marked some her most beloved anthems ("Untouchable Face," "As Is," "You Had Time") has softened. On “Albacore” DiFranco sings of tattooing a wedding band on her finger: “I am meant to be loving you, and it fairly blew my mind to be so sure, when that little needle said I do.”
The most touching song on the new album is “Hearse,” on which DiFranco sings, “I will follow you into the next life, like a dog chasing after a hearse.” Ah! There it is. Perhaps a poet will always be poet, and perhaps the more literal Ani is a picture of maturity—rather than saturating us with lyrical wisdom, she has tucked a few gems away. We may have to look harder, but over 17 albums DiFranco has shown that her mastery of language and her keen understanding of the ways the world turns will wriggle out in ways that make us glad she stuck to her politics and never went mainstream.
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