Ani DiFranco’s seventeenth album, her first new material for four years, isn’t the call to arms its title might suggest. Rather, her description in opener “Life Boat” of her “running monologue, entertaining in its outrage” gets closer to her approach, both personally and politically more an exploration than an outright manifesto. In this sense, it’s an expansion of the approach her work has always taken.
Musically, she’s largely moved beyond the desperate intensity of her mid-late ’90s material to tones of hope and poignant reflection, often within the same song. (In a way, it’s a relief – that era’s stuff could stop hearts on the wrong/right day.) Her feel for gorgeous melodies is still present as expected, as on “Splinter”, the chorus of “J” and stand-out “Hearse”. Much of the album backs her voice with languid, dusky folk from a band seasoned through familiarity, her ever-underrated guitar playing supplemented with neat arrangements for piano, glockenspiel, climactic bells, and even what sounds like a theremin on “Splinter”.
Lyrically, there is more contentment than ever before. “If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older, then you’re fucking up” is the advice that bookends “If Yr Not”; meanwhile, “Albacore” is maybe the most straightforward love song she’s ever written. Here too, though, there are interesting contradictions: this domestic bliss sits alongside the anti-slut-shaming rallying call “Promiscuity”, with its challenge “How you gonna know what you need, what you like/ till you’ve been around the block a few times?” The gorgeous “Hearse”, over the hum of a distant cello, extends the simple pleasures of lying with a partner and the baby in the next room beyond death itself, with its promise that “I will always be your lover even after our atoms are dispersed”. For a second, that Dilate-esque yearning intensity is back, but approached from the opposite direction.
Her political commitment persists too, but often seems less focussed or topical than before. She stands up opportunely for women’s rights and a constitutional amendment for abortion on “Amendment”; “Splinter” argues against disconnection from fellow humans, while “J” calls out the double standard of marijuana being illegal while marketable medicines that’ll eventually end up in our collective bloodstreams via water supplies are gleefully flogged on TV. The latter also gets in a pop at Obama for “just shifting his weight” (although calling out his arguable continuation of the Bush II agenda through drone strikes and indefinite detention might have been more timely).
The LP’s hedging over politics is perhaps seen best in its political focal point, the titular rewrite of Florence Reese’s “Which Side Are You On?” Reese, the wife of 1930s mine organiser Sam Reese, penned the song after being terrorised in an illegal raid on her house by police, who had been hired by mine bosses in an attempt to intimidate her union organiser husband.
The song sounds great, all crashing drum rolls, great big romping brass vamps and guest banjo by Pete Seeger, who originally popularised the song, and calls out the right targets – the “free market”, patriarchy and political classes. But it backs down somewhat in its suggestions that it might still be possible to end war and corruption through voting, or that “there’s folks in Washington/ that care what’s on our minds”, especially while similar aggression against protesters and organisers is still rampant.
Perhaps as a result of its restraint, then, ¿Which Side Are You On? isn’t a classic album. But it’s a solid one, nonetheless, from a voice that’s always good to hear.