I’d bet all the money in my pockets, which frankly is nothing, that Ani DiFranco’s fans from the early ’90s could have never imagined their iconic bisexual punk / folk poster-child heroine writing a song like “Present / Infant.” Such a thought would have been the equivalent of a 20th century mind envisioning an African-American in the White House in their lifetime. In both cases, the eventualities are a thing to celebrate, not to begrudge. Ani, probably like Barack, has never let popular opinion define her progression. Her music has always been informed by her politics, her sexuality and the world around her, yet with Red Letter Year, DiFranco’s latest album, another factor has become a driving influence, that being motherhood.
Most familiar with DiFranco’s past endeavors will notice a stark change in Ani’s sound on Red Letter Year. For one, Ani’s usually anger-edged vocals are sanded down, honeyed and measured. Songs are less growled and more actually sung. And while those early hardcore fans might find this disarming, it’s the best she’s sounded in her career. Not only is her voice melodious and relaxed, but also her band on this effort is ambitious and expansive. Not since teaming up with Doc Severinsen’s band after Dilate has Ani’s work sounded like a glorious creative collaboration. Styles and genres abound, with Ani and her band stretching in numerous directions with only the inconspicuous absence of her usually present staccato guitar. I say inconspicuous because, with the strength of the present songs, one can easily tend to forget her past modus operandi.
The aforementioned “Present / Infant,” a tearjerker for anyone with kids or at least feeling the pull of parenthood, provides the compass for the rest of the album. In it, DiFranco takes a step back from insecurities and consumerism to realize that her child is now the center of her universe. Taking a cue from Panda Bear, she iterates the mantra, “don’t forget to have a good time.” This compass then points to other songs throughout the album, with her current life maybe not injected into the lyrics, but at least influencing the songs’ eventual relaxed styles. Even the most rollicking numbers, such as “Emancipated Minor” and the boozy horn-filled “Red Letter Year Reprise,” have a measure of insouciant whimsy. But that’s not to say that Ani has let her guard down entirely.
While DiFranco’s styles may change and her moods fluctuate, she will always have her causes and political views. Red Letter Year is no exception. The title track takes digs at Bush, bemoaning his seeming lack of effort in rebuilding her adopted hometown. “Alla This” finds her singing that she “can’t support the troops / cuz every last one of them is being duped.” While not necessarily a popular sentiment, most reasoned people can hopefully see where she’s coming from. She also tries to find some kind of personal agreement between science and spirituality in “The Atom,” a task most would find in the least incredibly difficult. Ani, however, finds this reconciliation in five minutes, 25 seconds and just over 300 words. Granted, there are far fewer instances of DiFranco’s usually biting criticism, and even those mentioned above are somewhat softened in tone.
But by the time one reaches the jubilant closing tracks of Red Letter Year, they are too caught up in the celebration to remember what DiFranco used to be than the sophisticated artist she’s become. DiFranco has shown previous signs of balanced complexity in her music in such songs as “You Had Time” and “32 Flavors,” but Red Letter Year finds her in new territory, that of a mother taking time for her family, her art and her life, while never giving an inch on principle or belief. I’d argue that Red Letter Year is the best thing that Ani has ever created, but being a long-time fan, I’d end up arguing with myself. And besides, I’m sure Ani would argue, as is evidenced by this album, that mantle belongs to her daughter.
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