Ani DiFranco has never left us. What I mean by that is she never `retired’ or `took a break.’ There are some of particular sexual identity who will argue that Ani left them, but they need to get over their abandonment issues and learn to speak for themselves. What’s my point? My point is that after fifteen plus albums (nearly one a year), numerous collaborations, and constant touring, Ani has released an album that is probably the best of her career. Usually, after that much output, this kind of album marks some kind of comeback, but as I stated, Ani has never left.
Ani DiFranco’s music has always been personal, her lyrics, sharp staccato guitar, and spoken word compositions have come from deep within her own psyche, exposing the pain, loss, confusion, and typically the anger that she has felt in her life. Each album can stand as a marker of some particular stage of Ani’s life. Out of Range was a self-reflection as she reached her mid-twenties, Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate a collection of love songs, and more recently Educated Guess, a solitary reflection on the loss of that love, marking her divorce. Still reeling from that, DiFranco lost her father, one Dante Americo DiFranco, and her latest effort, Knuckle Down, brings a band back to support the punk/folk hybrid. Besides being dedicated to her father, it is, in my opinion, the closest to the spirit of one of her heroes, Woody Guthrie. Maybe not so much in style, but more in the fact that Ani takes a look at her America, and the America of her relatives, and renders her honest observations.
The title and title track connote Ani’s maturing view of the world and how even though she is becoming older and wiser, she still sometimes misses that naiveté she had in the past. “Studying Stones” is a stunner of a song. Featuring weepy strings, the song is one of her most personal to date, how she has kept herself numb to feeling in order to get through life’s harder events. This time, with the death of her father, it’s not as easy as it once was. The lines,
‘Course numb is an old hat
Old as my oldest memories
See that one’s my mother
And that one’s my father
And that one in the hat, that’s me
will stick with you. The feeling is much similar to Sting’s reflection on his own father’s death in his album, The Soul Cages. Of course for old Ani fans, there’s the bitter “Manhole.” Besides the clever title there’s wonderfully harsh lyrics like:
‘Course, you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t lie
He just doctors everything
Chooses some unassuming finger
And quietly moves his wedding ring
Who rewrites his autobiography
For any pretty girl who’ll sing
But you can’t fool the queen, baby
Cuz I married the king.
Ouch. Ani’s strength has always been her honesty, apparent in each well crafted lyric. But this time, Ani has one of the best accompanying bands she’s ever had, which adds that missing something that puts it over the top. One should look at Educated Guess and Knuckle Down as a set. One is Ani alone with her guitar, getting deep emotions out in their rawest forms. The other is the quieter and more introspective Ani, one that can construct layered music to go along with her insightful lyrics.
Other songs have certain signature sounds sure to catch attention. “Seeing Eye Dog” has a Tom Waits / New Orleans feel before the chorus which is pure past Ani. The chorus, besides being stripped down to just Ani and her guitar, has a complex rhyming structure that can make any English major smirk. (I’m referring to the `covet’ line which has two rhyming endings to match the previous four lines, for reference). “Parameters” is her one spoken word contribution. “Callous” is a post-relationship song that could be a sequel to the story in her previous song, “Untouchable Face.”
“Paradigm” is the perfect example of the Woody Guthrie comparison I made earlier. It discusses Ani’s background and how she reveres her family for the work they performed that fostered Democracy. “Minerva” and “Recoil” round out the album, one with an anthem reference and the other about loneliness. Like a good book, I didn’t want this album to end, but also like a good book, Ani managed to say everything she needed to say with the time that she had. Stripped down, like Educated Guess, Knuckle Down could have still been a damn good album, but with the new band and Joe Henry’s production help, the album is flawless. It’s about time that Ani had a comeback, except that, oh yeah, she never went anywhere to begin with.
Joni Mitchell- Blue
Ani DiFranco- Educated Guess
Sting- The Soul Cages