Musical careers are filled with ups and downs, good songs and not so good songs, commercial success and obscurity. The professional life of Ani DiFranco has seen all of these, from her charming auspicious début in 1990 to the wonder years of the 1990s, through the desolation of the start of the last decade into the revival of the end; DiFranco has tasted the highs and the lows of being a musician. Now, aged 41, married and enjoying motherhood, her seventeenth album ¿Which Side Are You On? is a heady mix of the politically charged (the name of the album and title track is taken from the Florence Reece protest song made popular by Pete Seeger – who also features on the song) and the deeply intimate and autobiographical. This is much more edgy than her previous album Red Letter Year – the resounding result of five years of toil and battling out of the wilderness than began with 2001’s monstrous and directionless Revelling/Reckoning – and continues a run of good (return to) form.
¿Which Side Are You On? immediately hits the right mark. Perfectly pitched in the centre ground between delicate empty acoustic folk and mid to fast tempo alt-rock, DiFranco blends some her best song-writing in a decade with a wonderful collection of arrangements to give the songs character and identity. At times ¿Which Side Are You On? feels like a ‘best of’ collection but falls short (thankfully) of repetition – everything sounds new and fresh but easily placed at different points in her back catalogue; like the album is a deliberate anthology.
Opener Life Boat is a great start – the spiky staccato guitar, fuzzy bass and Difranco’s delicious voice – part smoke, part fire – to bring it all together. The song attempts to sum up the ‘story so far’ from her engaging personality to life as an ‘exposed’ musician and icon. Unworry takes the same approach but is two songs wound together – DiFranco interrupts her own flow several times like a rambling, yet charming, schizophrenic.
The title track, underpinning the whole album, is way ahead of everything else in its directness and no-nonsense execution. The only criticism is the lack of subtlety makes it sound more like a parody than an open, honest appeal to the powers that be. The non-universal nature of the song is its only downfall. This is one of the reasons most of the world dislikes Bruce Springsteen, especially when his music is used in the wrong context. This aside, this is solid reinvention of an old established idea that has some startling moments.
Splinter, with its pseudo-calypso feel, couldn’t be more different. A pro-feminist song sugar-coated, it delivers some of the best lines: “Watch out for that TV; it’s full of splinters. And remember you can always go outside…Really, really, really far outside…” and “Who put all this stuff in my apartment? Who put all this ice in my drink? Who put the poison in the atmosphere? Who put the poison in the way I think?”. Musically there are some great touches. Unfortunately ¿Which Side Are You On? falters slightly with the odd Promiscuity. This time, the start/stop arrangement distracts from the positive message.
¿Which Side Are You On? comes back kicking with the beautiful Albacore – the most obvious love song on the album. A perfect bleak arrangement with DiFranco as the central instrument is accompanied by exquisite piano. J is an intriguing exploration into culture and purpose, again filled with keen observation and social commentary, but it fails to translate into a structure – the song ambles and loops through its five minutes. In contrast, the short punchy and industrial If Yr Not is a moment of brilliance. Continuing the diversity, Hearse is a truly beautiful vocal performance set to a balanced piano-led backing – odd euphemism aside – this manages to be both kooky and meaningful in equal measure.
Into the final trilogy, Mariachi is another elegantly performed love song of unravelling stories and experiences. More great guitar work and piano take it from page to performance as the tales unfold. Another sidestep takes the album to the menacing equal-rights anthem of Amendment, fusing light and darkness, positive with negative, and highlighting more issues in six and half minutes than the rest of the album put together. Again, a direct unsubtle delivery is made credible with a sincere honest vocal.
¿Which Side Are You On? closes with the downbeat and world-weary Zoo, bringing the album to a very dour end. It is a shame that this feels like DiFranco giving up instead of fighting on and an odd choice for closer. That said, the final hard-hitting lyrics are: “Pour your love into your children…until there’s nothing left to say”. Twice.
Ani DiFranco has gathered together an interesting group of musicians for this album. As well as Pete Seeger, she is joined by Ivan and Cyril Neville, Adam Levy and saxophonist Skerik. And musically ¿Which Side Are You On? is more coherent and stable than it could have been, with plenty of flourishes. Long gone are DiFranco’s angst-fuelled days of the brilliant brutal and bare Dilate, and this is certainly far removed from the sparse hopelessness of Revelling/Reckoning and chaotic Puddle Dive. Music often echoes the musician’s own life and this certainly does – Ani DiFranco is now older, wiser, calmer and settled, but her music is continuously thought-provoking, compelling and it still packs a punch.