Twenty years since her debut album and across as many releases Ani DiFranco hits as powerfully and as accurately with her new album ¿Which Side are You On? as at any time in her long impressive career. Within it political and personal issues and subjects are addressed as always from DiFranco, her incisive vision and views veining what are fine and engaging songs that inspire and provoke without ever preaching. Released once more via her own Righteous Babe Records on January 17th the album is a vibrant thoughtful kaleidoscope of wonderfully crafted and thought out emotive expressions and music.
It has been over three years since previous album Red Letter Year of 2008 graced the world and in the time since DiFranco has found an even more direct and deliberate intent with her music that drives even deeper with a stronger openness though there has never been a moment she has been lacking in that area. A comment about the album from DiFranco herself neatly sums up the feel of the album. “I’m testing deeper waters with the political songs on this album,” she says. “I feel a little bit frustrated, politically desperate. After having written hundreds of songs over decades, I think, ‘Now what? How far can I go with this? Can you sing the word ‘abortion,’ can you sing the word ‘patriarchy’ – what can you sing and get away with? I guess I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to. How big is my mouth? What can I get out of it successfully?”
The title track seems to be the initial talking point about the album for most though there are many impressive and striking songs and elements within it elsewhere. ‘¿Which Side Are You On?’ is a stunning reworking of a song written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of Harlan County, Kentucky union organizer Sam Reece. It has been covered many times most notably by Pete Seeger in 1967 and here has been revitalised and invigorated by DiFranco’s warm yet challenging interpretation. It is a song that will always be relevant in this world no matter the decade it seems and the rousing call to arms feel here provokes and inspires impressively. The track features Seeger on banjo and additional vocals and is as important now as it was in the times of its origin and around Seeger’s version.
The other eleven songs that make up the album are just as refreshing and successfully emotive and expressive. Opening track ‘Life Boat’ gives a wonderfully open and bare view and awareness from a period of life where innocence, naivety and discomfort go hand in hand. The song is visual inspiring images and evoking memories for all in some degree. Another personal stirring song is ‘If Yr Not’, its reflections and acceptance of the ageing process and the choice to embrace it without fear and negativity relevant again to all.
Political and social issues are treated to and given equal intensity and impactful power. Alongside the title track DiFranco hits deeply with the likes of the arresting ‘Promiscuity’ with its whimsical styled tune countering the non preachy ‘lesson’ of the lyrics, the mesmeric potent poking of government inaction within ‘J’, and in the album’s best track ‘Amendment’. This exceptional song is a slow burner that enters on a beckoning riff as DiFranco unveils her ‘announcement’, a deceptively crunching challenging track it wraps its encouraging arms around to inspire and guides to a confidence in the use of standing up with a voice and body, represented by the bold and sure stomp the track evolves into.
¿Which Side Are You On? is a stunning album that informs and reveals without ever demanding or imposing. Most of all though Ana DiFranco has released an album that musically is graceful and animated, a hypnotic pleasure whichever attack or approach she engages. The year is off to a real potent flyer.