Change Is Good
Ani Difranco Encourages Us to Evolve

Okay, back to the music reviews before this column turns into one of those goddamn blogs clogging the ‘net. Again, got a lot of nice comments about last week’s missive, and my cousin wrote to call me an idiot for taking stupid factory jobs, so it’s all good. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been listening to while job-hunting this week:

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Ani Difranco is absolutely fearless.

If you need proof of that, and after 17 albums and more than a dozen years it’s nearly unfathomable that you would, just observe how she’s systematically rejected every label (and attendant fanbase) that’s been attached to her. It’s been a long and fascinating journey from head-shaven upstart folkie to mature jazz-folk composer, with a full head of hair and a heterosexual spouse to boot, but Difranco has never been anything but herself. She transcends the little boxes in which people like to place musicians.

A lot of artists complain about their labels and financial situations, claiming that if only they had control of their own output, they’d be making brilliant music on their own terms. As of this writing, Ani’s just about the only one to put her money where her mouth is, sustaining a lengthy and adventurous career on her own record label, with her own distribution and promotion team, and anchored by her tireless, endless touring. She started with a self-titled, cassette-only release in 1990, featuring just her voice and acoustic guitar, and through the years she’s slowly added instruments, shadings and arrangements, documenting every step of her growth along the way.

In my review of 2001’s mammoth double-disc Revelling/Reckoning album, I called it an arrival point, a plateau in her career. If one were to listen to that self-titled album and the double record back to back, one would be hard-pressed to guess at the steps she took to get there, so different is the sound. Difranco has become fascinated with jazz, incorporating beautiful dissonance and breathtaking horn arrangements into her folksy songs, and few traces of the acoustic troubadour she once was can be found. Rarely has an artist let her audience in on her own journey as completely as Difranco has, however – with at least one album a year since 1990 (and three in 1999), she’s unashamedly grown before our ears. Even her missteps (Up Up Up Up Up Up, for instance) are available in shining digital quality, waiting to be discovered as the crucial midpoints between moments of greatness.

Still, it would be hard to argue that Revelling/Reckoning was anything but a conclusion to one chapter of the Difranco story. Over two hours, she stretched the wings she earned on previous releases, coming up with a consistently engaging masterpiece. She even seemed to sense what a landmark the album was – she followed it up with a two-disc live summation of her career, last year’s So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter. While entertaining, that record felt like a holding action, unable to answer the question of how on earth Ani’s next studio release could compete with her best work to date. What would she do next?

Well, what’s a restless artist to do but Evolve.

That’s the title of Difranco’s just-released 17th album, a relatively succinct 12-song affair that clocks in a just under an hour. Were this any other artist, that title may lead you to expect something unlike anything you’ve heard from her before, but in Difranco’s case, Evolve is just an acknowledgment of her continued growth. Her fans can rest easy, and her detractors can ignore with no fear – Evolve is another set of strong jazz-folk songs with fantastic lyrics and superb arrangements, only this time the songs are stronger, the lyrics are even more fantastic, and the arrangements even more superb.

The first thing you’ll notice about Evolve is that, even though it’s only March, Difranco is way ahead in the Most Beautiful Packaging of the Year race. The album comes in a blue metallic foil die-cut slipcase, the sort of thing that used to adorn special issues of superhero comics in the early ’90s. This is what you can do with your own record label, especially if you only release (with a few exceptions) your own records, once or twice a year.

The album itself sounds like a single-disc edit of Revelling and Reckoning, mixing horn-inflected jazz numbers like “Here For Now” and the amazing “Slide” with solo acoustic guitar pieces like the title track and “Phase.” Those interested in this sort of thing will note that her skills at charting those horn parts have grown immensely – check out the thumping dissonance of “O My My” and the delightful little accents that elevate “Second Intermission.” Difranco is often underrated as a guitar player as well, especially since she all but phased the wrist-breaking speed out of her repertoire, but her nimble work here is never less than beautiful.

Evolve is among Difranco’s most consistent works, and the dead spots that have plagued her career are here kept to a minimum. The focus, as always, is on her voice and lyrics, but that voice has also evolved into a quirky, scat-influenced wonder, always avoiding the straightforward folk approach for a more interesting swoop and dive. Nowhere is that more true than on the bracing 10-minute “Serpentine,” which would be the album’s centerpiece if it were not the penultimate track. Here Difranco’s voice is accompanied only by a muted acoustic playing two chords, just to set key and time. That voice dips and soars and explodes all over that spare backing, making “Serpentine” the closest thing to beat poetry Difranco has done in some time.

In many ways, “Serpentine” follows in the same vein as last year’s venomous “Self Evident.” It’s a highly personal examination of life after September 11, taking broad yet pointed shots at corporate America, pseudo-democracy and violent responses to peaceful protests. “Give me my Judy Garland drugs and let me get back to work,” she sings in the album’s most chilling moment, “’cause the Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York.” Difranco knows a wound won’t heal if you keep poking at it, and she intends to continue poking until we learn the lessons she believes Sept. 11 should have taught us.

The closing slot on Evolve, following “Serpentine,” belongs to “Welcome To,” a sad grace note about that very process. “Welcome to something like elation when you first open your eyes,” she sings, “just ‘cuz it means that you must have finally got to sleep last night.” In many ways, healing, both personal and national, is the focus of Evolve, which sets tales of hopeless souls against a world of insecurity and violence. “Seems like you just started noticing how noticeably bad things really are,” reads the first line of “Icarus,” and that theme carries throughout.

Still, this is not a post-tragedy rallying cry like Springsteen’s The Rising. Difranco is too much of a storyteller to pander so shamelessly. Rather, she uses the noticeably bad state of the country to discuss the spaces between people, the blindness that extends from our view of America right down to our view of each other. “Serpentine,” in fact, juxtaposes the personal and the political, a national wound and a knife in the back, liberally splashing them both with the same anger and, ultimately, using both as an excuse for seclusion. At the song’s conclusion, Difranco wraps herself (and, by extension, us) in a cocoon, which we’re still in at album’s end.

But we know what happens inside cocoons, right? Eventually we emerge, evolved into something better and more beautiful. The album’s musical theme accents its lyrical one – we need to grow, slowly and gradually, into what we’re meant to be. Difranco highlights the personal and national depression she’s encountering, and she does so with the hope that we can grow beyond it. “My distraction’s my defense against a lack of inspiration, against a slow leak deflation,” she sings on “Phase,” and she’s documented that deflation here beautifully. But if she’s feeling that lack of inspiration, its evidence is nowhere on Evolve.

Like all of her recent work, Evolve is a difficult album. It takes some time to work its way into your system, and it’s a far cry from her immediately enjoyable early stuff. Those hoping Difranco will someday return to her brash folk-punk roots are missing the point. She’s growing up, evolving, and she’s giving us a front row seat while she does it. Few artists these days are willing to invite listeners on a trip like this, and it’s a ride I wouldn’t miss for the world.

See you in line Tuesday morning.