“White people are so scared of black people / they bulldoze out to the country / and put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets / and while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest / the Berlin Wall still runs down Main Street / separating East from West.”
Thus sings political-minded folk rock star Ani DiFranco on “Revelling/Reckoning,” her newest release. Beyond the lyrical savagery of some songs like “Subdivision,” quoted above, it is a double album of ambitious and impressive scope. DiFranco’s creativity is once again capable of producing a lengthy and varied work, while avoiding repetition or heavy-handed soapboxing.
She divides the album into two distinct halves with specific tones. “Reckoning” is softer and the majority of its songs are acoustic, solo Ani enterprises. “Revelling” presents the full musical force of DiFranco and her band with a higher level of energy and sound diversity. Each song functions as an individual unit of musicianship within the flow of each disc. The profuse variety within the album reflect her wide influences. She manages to retain the unique voice first presented on her self-debut, that of a lone woman-poet with her acoustic guitar, as well as pay homage to the history of blues, folk and country development.
Few artists have been as prolific, or started as young as DiFranco. She was 19 when she began publishing her music, and has since produced over fifteen full-length records. Throughout her decade-long career, her fame has gradually elevated her to her present status as the undisputed goddess of folk-rock. She plays the roles of social commentator, gay rights spokeswoman, urban justice observer, alternative culture poster child, and self-doubting feminist, all while steadily writing, producing and touring. Her fans are among the most rabid and devout in the industry, as the abundance of personalized, obsessively up-to-date Web sites in her honor suggest. The copious adoration she receives from so many has done little to disturb her lyrical style or content.
You won’t find any wealth-induced pride or self-congratulation on a DiFranco album, including “Revelling/Reckoning.” Her lyrics still are concerned solely with real-life situations, emotions and human angst. Despite her international fame, she still bemoans losing in love on many tracks like “Marrow,” and her frustrations as a member of her generation on “Kazoointoit” and “Your Next Bold Move.” Shameless in her blunt criticism and politicking, DiFranco lyrics like “coming of age during the plague / of Reagan and Bush / watching capitalism gun down democracy / it had this funny effect on me– / I am cancer / I am AIDS” are always refreshing, making her fans cheer and forcing even critics to acknowledge her razor-sharp take on society.
“Revelling/Reckoning” is an appropriate follow-up to the last two releases, “To the Teeth,” and “Up Up Up Up Up Up.” Her recent musical persuasion shows an excursion into a more filled-out band sound, incorporating extensive percussion and horn sections. By no means has she abandoned the spare, acoustic sound of her younger days. In fact, her original style is well-represented on the album’s more mellow, reflective half, “Reckoning.” In addition to the classic Ani, “Reckoning” flirts with country twang on “Sick of Me.” “Revelling” resonates with the celebration of cross-genre styles. The Latin funk on “What How When Where (Why Who)” recalls Paul Simon’s trans-cultural exploration yet retains DiFranco’s fiercely original bent. The opening track, “Ain’t that the Way?” is also similar to a contemporary of DiFranco’s with its sarcastic, blues guitar a la Bonnie Raitt.
The appeal of the double album gimmick in DiFranco’s case extends beyond the over-simplified conceit of “Revelling” as the “up music” and “Reckoning” as the “down.” She has crafted an ensemble of theme songs for life, the kind of music that movie scores play in the background while characters reflect and brood in floods of Hollywood rain. The listener’s life and problems become as interesting as any movie character’s life while commiserating with Ani while she sings, “there is pressure within this / and pressure from above / there is pressure on our tenuous, strenuous love / and there’s wet wool blankets one two three / laid onto my chest / ’til I just can’t breathe” on “Heartbreak Even.”
What is most amazing about “Revelling/Reckoning” is its ability to entertain consistently and constantly despite its length and singular origin. All songs were written solely by DiFranco and are likewise self-produced, but this doesn’t hinder the compelling nature of the album as a whole. Using instruments like kazoos, tongue drums, clarinet, organ, and the tamburitza, along with, or independent of, her acoustic or electric guitar, the sounds are never boring. Even her vocal arrangements benefit from experimentation on the part of DiFranco, especially on “Kazoointoit” and “What How When Where (Why Who).” It would be easy to say that DiFranco reaches a peak in her songwriting in “Revelling/Reckoning.” Double albums often mean an artist’s creative energy has splurged and will consequently dry up for at least a little while afterwards. DiFranco’s history of inexhaustible creativity, however, means this jewel of an album is only yet another facet of her brilliant body of work.