Upon reaching one’s fifteenth studio album, in the midst of a tireless, 17-year career of constant touring, one would think that there might be a shortage of things to say. But, just as with every other Ani DiFranco release, her fifteenth studio album, Reprieve, has managed to do what few artists with longevity have done—surprise me. After a bout with severe tendonitis, which threatened her career, DiFranco came rebounding back, though with a canny release strategy, it seemed as if she was never gone. While resting her road-weary wrists, DiFranco released a live album from a 2002 appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, a show so shrouded in 9/11 angst, that her poetry, songwriting and commentary come across as some of the bravest and most courageous material she’s ever performed. Once she was able to play again, she began work on Reprieve in her newly adopted home of New Orleans. The recording was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, an event both disastrous and, in terms of her resulting art, fortuitous. Resuming in her original home of Buffalo, DiFranco ended up making one of her most spare and moving efforts to date.
There are plenty of decent albums out there. If it weren’t true, we wouldn’t have so many `best of’ lists floating around everywhere. But I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon occurring when an album is so aesthetically and consistently perfect that it becomes the ultimate representation of the artist and creator. The artist and album become almost inseparable, with the two taking on a possessive quality. For instance, it is now Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the Who’s Quadrophenia or Tommy and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The possessive tends to indicate not only some kind of classic status, but also seems to hint at some kind of artistic breakthrough, with a similarity in how great works of art are referenced (i.e. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or Picasso’s “Guernica”). DiFranco’s latest album so surprised me in its stark beauty, well-crafted language and relevant themes, that I don’t think it’s any stretch to grant it the rare distinction of the possessive. After seventeen years of `do it yourself’ struggles, fifteen studio albums of consistent genre-bending songsmith, and the most recent hardships affecting her and her city, this, at long last, is Ani DiFranco’s Reprieve.
Accompanied only by multi-instrumentalist Todd Sickafoose, whose lonely bass is the first sound heard on the album, Ani continues her gradual return to her acoustic beginnings. Her brief dalliance with horns, electricity and glorious noise is behind her, yet informs all of her current work. Although the sound of Reprieve can seem spare, it is also complex, including the subtle appearances of found sounds, organ distortion and white noise. In this way, Reprieve is constructed much like a jazz record. The two players improvise along to a simple (or not so simple) time structure and then layer on poetry charged with import. For an artist known to be extremely quotable (i.e. “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right“), these new songs continue to impress with lines such as “The stars are going out and the stripes are getting bent” from “Decree,” a song that is just as much a new composition as it is a recollection of DiFranco’s finer songs of the past. “78% H2O” is a further lamentation of a failed relationship, but in some of her most poignant and clever imagery yet. “Millennium Theater” is sure to receive warranted attention due to its somewhat prophetic nature. Of course, its vision of a destroyed New Orleans (remember, it was written before Katrina hit) could only be attributed as prophecy to the administration and FEMA as they showed themselves woefully under-prepared to deal with the tragedy.
The album’s title track is one of Ani’s signature spoken word tracks, one of the best she’s written, and made more significant and relevant by the recent revelation of her pregnancy. The song starts with the images of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan (also reflected in the album’s packaging, once again worthy of awards for graphic design, another area in which DiFranco continues to outdo herself with every release). She compares this man-made perversion and destruction of nature with human nature, specifically the female’s ability to reproduce. It’s all summed up with the elegant phrases, “goddess forbid that little atom / should grow so jealous of eve / and in the face of the great farce / of the nuclear age / feminism ain’t about equality / it’s about reprieve.” “A Spade” turns her attention to religion as the one single impetus for war, saying that we’ve all been looking for the answer to it in the wrong place. “Shroud,” as the penultimate song on the album is an incredible closer, and if I didn’t think that Ani probably had at least another fifteen albums in her, would be a fine closing to an incredible artistic run. The song looks at the lessons she’s learned over the years, revealing that what’s ultimately important is not what most might think.
It seems over the years that DiFranco’s fans are so passionate that it is just as easy to lose fans as to gain them. Her early frank song topics of feminism, sex and gay culture garnered a significant fan base, only to find it fractured by her subsequent marriage (considered by some to be a betrayal) and songs of hetero-based love. Yet history bears out that DiFranco herself has not changed. Like most folk heroes, her modus operandi has always been about questioning authority, whether based in the government, ignorant points of view, patriarchal societies, or human foibles. She’s never expressed those feelings better than on Reprieve. The album is such a delicate balance of topics, sounds and words that it in essence becomes her most accomplished album to date, one that she should feel most proud of which to take possession.
Ani DiFranco- Knuckle Down
Neil Young- Living With War
Joni Mitchell- Both Sides Now