Ani DiFranco has taken a lot of sides in her decades-long career. She has also famously refused to take sides, and, undeniably, looked at many things from both sides. Her new studio album ¿Which Side Are You On?, released today, is both a personal State of the Union address from the iconic folksinger, and an appeal to her listeners and the larger world to decide and declare where each of us stands in a world that’s begging for champions.
It’s been more than three years since Ani’s last studio album, which is a fairly average brew time for many musicians, but for the incredibly prolific DiFranco it’s a lifetime. That word choice is deliberate: DiFranco and her husband have spent the last several years making a human, instead of making more records. The occurrence of her marriage and arrival of her daughter are ¿Which Side Are You On? ‘s definitive subjects, and place DiFranco on a couple of her most high-profile sides to date. First, she’s married. Happily. To a man. This has the potential to be startling stuff to DiFranco fans, some of whom were heartbroken that she settled down with a not-woman AND had a great time doing it AND proceeded to release some of her most thoughtful work to date because of it. It’s a different picture of the bisexual singer than her earlier work painted, or than Nick Hornby condescendingly alluded to, and the backlash, which DiFranco has said affected her deeply, is perhaps understandably passionate because the singer herself is so unflinching in the emotional revelations she’s been putting to music since 1989. But judging her music for who she shacks up with is, obviously, absurd.
That being said, being married is every, every, EVERYwhere on ¿Which Side Are You On?. Some songs mention her partner outright, and some obliquely. From “Unworry,” whose colloquial lyrics and speak-singing delivery make the lovey-dovey message less sappy: Let’s only ever be allies/even if the whole background dissolves/And little pink hearts can pop over our heads/but we’ll keep our cool.
From “Albacore,” the album’s most direct love song, and some of the calmest, most beautiful songwriting DiFranco’s ever done (Hornby be damned): Look here I just tattooed/A wedding band/On what looks like to me/My mother’s hand/I’m no blushing girl/No innocent dove/It took me a long time/to find love/But now I have no doubt/and I never will/That I am meant to be/Loving you/And it fairly blew my mind/To be so sure/When that little needle/said I do.
And then there’s “Hearse,” a song with admirable simplicity but some pretty jarring lyrics to veteran Ani-fan ears. “I don’t want to strive for nothing anymore,” she sings, “I just wanna lie here with you, keep the wars outside the door.” OK, I thought, after hearing that line, the first one in the song. Maybe she really ISN’T on our side anymore. But that’s not right, either. “Hearse” comes after “J,” a political roll call of the ruling classes’ wrongs, a DiFranco specialty, “Amendment,” which calls for an ERA-type amendment to be made once and for all, and “¿Which Side Are You On?,” the anthemic titular remake of Pete Seeger’s 1953 song written for unionized workers. (Folk hero double points: Seeger plays the banjo for Ani’s cover, which is the musical highlight of the entire record even without knowing who’s playing it. Stream or download the song on Soundcloud by clicking here) She has not lost her razor-sharp critical eye, nor her ability to say words like “abortion” and “patriarchy” (or “albacore,” for that matter) on records without sounding like she’s reading a textbook of feminist theory. But that doesn’t mean that “Hearse” isn’t a misstep. It is. It’s a sweet song, but everybody writes sweet songs, and Ani DiFranco is not everybody. The album would be stronger without this particular lullaby.
Then there is her daughter, who was born in 2007, between the releases of Reprieve and Red Letter Year. (Telling titles, to say nothing of their content.) The baby was the star of Red Letter Year and the hinted-at result of Reprieve, which again threw longtime listeners for a loop. The title poem from Reprieve says To split yourself in two, is just the most radical thing you can do/So if that shit ain’t up to you/Then girl you simply are not free./Cause from the sunlight on my hair/to which eggs I grow to term/to the expresision that I wear/All I really own is me. WHAT? Our Ani, Ani of the West Side Highway and Jersey sunsets and fetuses “holding court in [her] gut?” She’s CARRYING EGGS TO TERM NOW? Yes. She is. And then she’s writing graceful, powerful songs about it, just like she was writing graceful, powerful songs when she wasn’t. She is audibly smiling while singing, whenever her family is the subject matter. Even when they’re not, Difranco’s music has changed. Her guitarwork is slower, less overpowering. Her voice is more even, more relaxed. Her vocal cords and her entire musical attitude ooze calm and well-being, and she has absolutely never sounded more on top of her game.
And, fears be quelled, she is still (in fact, more than ever!) a big ol’ Banner-Carrying Feminist (BCF). (For more on Ani’s current understanding of feminism, see in particular the interview Avital Norman Nathman did with her for Bitch last month! Full version here.)
The first line of this album, in the song “Life Boat,” says Every time I open my mouth/I take off my clothes. Hearing that, it’s clear Ani Difranco has not changed any fundamental sides here. The music she makes is still as revealing and brave as it ever was, even if the paradigm has shifted lower on the Kinsey scale and higher on the number of bedrooms needed to house her brood. She is a masterful musician whose happiness makes her playing even better. Her audience is growing, her influence is immutable, and her voice is a vital one for feminists and activists everywhere. ¿Which Side Are You On? is the product of an artist comfortable with the side she stands on, waiting for (and demanding) everyone else to find and stand comfortably on their own. Previously: The Last Names, Flown