There are people who think Ani DiFranco’s gotten too mainstream, too popular for her own good. Here’s a little story to dispel that notion, and it’s got a familiar chorus to it:
I tried to order her new album from both local record stores. To my knowledge, they still don’t have any copies in stock. One clerk I talked to had never heard of DiFranco. Here in Tennessee this new double album retails (if they ever stock it) for $27. I got mine (sing along now) from Bull Moose in Portland (thank you, Allison) for a grand total of $17.82. Tax included. The moral of the story is, not only does heartland America have no clue who Ani DiFranco is, they couldn’t afford her anyway. Mainstream? Not by half.
In fact, DiFranco has always been the furthest thing from mainstream you’d be likely to find. Over 12 years she’s afforded the serious listener the chance to watch the growth and maturation of an amazing artist on her own terms. DiFranco has never done anything musically for anyone but herself, as the legions of fans who have abandoned her as she’s turned away from her confessional folk roots will attest. She’s been on a trip since 1996’s Dilate, one that’s led her to create a series of strange, twisting records that defy easy categorization and casual listening. Since Righteous Babe Records, her label, is owned and operated by DiFranco herself (and always has been), she’s also able to release these records quite rapidly. In 1999 alone she had three full-length discs on the shelves, and they were all defiantly musical and oddly rewarding, but only after several listens.
She took all of 2000 off to write and record, and the fruits of her labor are now here. It’s called Revelling/Reckoning, it’s two hours long, and it’s her finest achievement. In fact, it’s so good that she can misspell “reveling” all she wants. I won’t mind.
In the truest sense, Revelling/Reckoning is not a double album, but rather two complete works packaged together. Her last few albums have managed a delicate balance between her sparse guitar-vocal material and her increasingly fuller jazz-folk stuff. The new one discards that balance completely, separating the two styles. Revelling is full of tasty horns and upbeat folk-pop, and Reckoning is a slow, peaceful, emotional slice of melancholia. The two records complement each other nicely, though, and the elaborate packaging emphasizes this. Instead of presenting a constantly shifting roller coaster, like she has in the past, here DiFranco has expertly simulated just the first treacherous rise and sickening drop. In slow motion.
If you take DiFranco’s catalog as a whole, it becomes apparent that some records are practice sessions for other ones. Now that Revelling/Reckoning is here, it puts her recent output into perspective. Every album since Little Plastic Castle has been a trial run for this beast – the arrangements have gotten more complicated, the jazz elements have been a little more prominent, and everything has slowed down. Completely absent from this two-hour tour is the wrist-breaking acoustic troubadour that made Puddle Dive, Out of Range and Not a Pretty Girl, to name three. In her place is Ani the studio wizard, Ani the constantly blooming songwriter, Ani the sonic innovator. Like it or loathe it, this is where she is now. I love it.
The great thing about Revelling/Reckoning is that each disc can stand on its own. Either one would have been an acceptable, even terrific new album. Together, though, they form a tour de force, the most consistent argument yet that this woman is a national treasure. Two hours of music this idiosyncratic, this emotional, and yes, this non-commercial would have had an uphill battle at any major record company. Ani produces her own records and owns the company that releases them. From no other living artist could you be so certain of experiencing an honest, uncensored artistic journey over an extended period of time.
And I haven’t even talked specifically about the record yet.
Revelling, taken on its own, is the culmination of DiFranco’s fascination over the last few years with melding jazz and folk into a new musical form. The horn arrangements that jump off of this disc are her most harmonically complex, and the songs are the most complete they’ve ever been. “Ain’t That the Way” grooves along while the wonderfully dissonant horns try to derail it for four minutes. “Marrow” is a big, bold pop song, “What How When Where (Why Who)” is almost ridiculously enjoyable, and “Rock Paper Scissors” is deep and lovely. Revelling also contains the most experimental tracks, especially “Kazoointoit,” which does indeed contain a kazoo part, albeit one played through an answering machine. By itself, Revelling feels like a destination, one that’s been a long time coming.
By contrast, Reckoning feels like a rediscovery. It’s almost entirely guitar and voice – only three of the 16 tracks contain drums. Even on her last few records, DiFranco has kept her slower tunes pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Here, she allows the jazz influence that permeates Revelling to inform her acoustic songwriting and arranging, and the result is her best material in ages. The tempo never rises above glacial, but those tasty horns come in at perfect intervals, and the whole thing sets a mood that she’s never tried to set before. It almost comes off as an hour-long song, stitched together by five small electric guitar pieces that really unify it. For all that, though, “So What,” Grey” and “Subdivision” are standouts.
But together, ah, together these discs paint a complete picture of the current state of Ani DiFranco. I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics, and I won’t do her the disservice of excerpting them, but suffice it to say that her reputation as a wordsmith remains unblemished. Revelling/Reckoning, like all of her albums, is as enjoyable to read as poems as it is to hear as songs. These tunes probe themes of faith, trust, identity and justice, as always, and she finds new and striking ways to broach each of these topics, like always.
Listening to Revelling/Reckoning as a single work is quite an experience. Instead of taking you to many different places, this album gives you in-depth knowledge of two musical landscapes, one sunny, one snow-covered, and to its credit, you end up not wanting to leave either one. Sure, two hours may seem like a long time to invest in a single release, but unlike a lot of double disc sets, this one doesn’t feel padded at all. Each record stands on its own, and the genius of pairing them is that each one prepares you for the other. You could listen to them as a circuitous whole for days and not get tired of them.
It’s amazing, really. Before our eyes, the little folksinger that could has developed into one of our most literate and original singer/songwriters, and all without losing touch of her emotional core. If you’re one of those pining for DiFranco to return to her old style, let this album serve as the final nail in that particular coffin. If, however, you’re one of those willing to trust an artist to take you places neither one of you has been, then this ride’s for you. In an astonishingly small amount of time, Ani DiFranco has grown into a musical force to be reckoned with. And revelled in.
See you in line Tuesday morning.