Ani DiFranco's first album in three years finds the self-proclaimed Righteous Babe in feisty, thoughtful form, her political ardour undimmed despite a discernibly increased interest in the effects of ageing, particularly the way it deepens and matures the once callow emotions of love and devotion.
Unlike some songwriters who hide behind over-elaborate metaphor and allusion, DiFranco is sometimes alarmingly straight-spoken, with a journalist's desire to convey the facts (and opinions) as clearly as possible: "Every time I open my mouth, I take off my clothes, and run frostbitten from being exposed," as she explains in the opening "Life Boat". So it's no surprise to find her covering that most direct and confrontational of protest anthems, "Which Side Are You On?", where the presence of 92-year-old Pete Seeger's banjo alongside the brass of youthful New Orleans marching-band musicians makes an explicit point about the perennial persistence of certain political issues. As if to emphasise this point, Di Franco updates the lyric with extra verses of her own, using references to things like "the curse of Reaganomics" to re-direct the titular query at a new president.
Her disappointment that Obama hasn't yet turned out to be FDR Mk 2 is also apparent in "J", a reflection on hope and stagnation in her Louisiana homeland, initially prompted by her observation of the disparity between her personal experience of drugs with that endlessly relayed on TV, in news and drama shows alike. The track's spooky swirl of keyboards and guitars is echoed later in "Amendment", where she revives the dormant issue of the Equal Rights Amendment, further demanding that abortion be enshrined as a right. While recognising pro-lifers' right to raise their children as they see fit, she adds, "Don't treat all women as if they are your children".
Sexuality is more directly addressed in "Promiscuity", which she characterises as a kind of "research and development" process. "How you gonna know what you need and you like, till you been around the block a few times on your bike?" she asks, an attitude that leads to the increased regard for age and experience evident in songs such as "Unworry", "Mariachi" and "Albacore".
Set to gentle, springy guitar chording over loping double bass, the latter song expresses her surprise at finding love later in life, her delight adroitly summarised in the acknowledgement that, "When I am next to you, I am more me." As an expression of devotion, it's challenged here only by "Hearse", which deals dextrously with the difficult balancing act of juggling the prospects of both love and death. "I don't wanna strive for nothing any more," she admits. "I will follow you into the next world like a dog running after a hearse." It's such a strange image, at once tragic and comic, sad yet uplifting, that one's heart can't help but swell with emotion, which, for all her righteousness, is something one never expected from a polemicist as direct and unvarnished as Ani DiFranco.
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