[16 January 2012]
It would be easy to suggest that the usually prolific Ani DiFranco’s newest album, Which Side Are You On?, her first in nearly four years, is a direct response to the Occupy Wall Street movement that took hold last year. However, this would be a slight to her previous work, which has always been strongly political and often angry. DiFranco has been producing the same type of music for the last 20 years—strongly lyrically focused with an activist bent. To pigeonhole her into a movement that has only recently gained steam in the last year would not give her nearly enough credit.
Moreover, even though Which Side Are You On? is built around the union song that Pete Seeger made famous, the album is much more autobiographical than political. The songs about social and political issues are still present—“Amendment”, “J”, and the title track all feature poignant lyrics with DiFranco’s trademark guitar style, but they aren’t the focus. “Amendment” and the reworked “Which Side Are You On?”, the two longest tracks on the record, however, do warrant extra attention. “Amendment” is the typical DiFranco song in that it features striking lyrics about abortion and privacy, sparsely framed by her guitar. The “Which Side Are You On?” cover strikes a similar vein, albeit with a more urgent tone. The tune rollicks through over six minutes of liberal thought. Especially damning are the lyrics “30 years of diggin’ / Got us in this hole / The curse of Reaganomics / Has finally taken it’s toll”, which show the essence of DiFranco’s politics.
Yet, what’s different here from the bulk of her discography are the autobiographical tendencies that DiFranco continues from her last record, 2008’s Red Letter Year. Especially notable are the tender “Hearse” and the sad “Life Boat”. “Life Boat”, the strongest track on the album, tells the story about the loneliness of living on the streets. DiFranco’s lyrics have often been hit or miss, but they are perfectly on point here, writing, “This park bench is a lifeboat / And the rest a big, dark sea / And I’ll just lie here ‘til something comes and finds me.” The starkness of the lyrics makes up for the missteps that Ani sometimes makes with her words. In earlier works, DiFranco often felt obliged to include a political message in her songs—not so on this record, where she often writes just for her own autobiographical purposes. In this regard, she has grown as a writer who no longer needs to be controversial to create her music.
As a total package, Which Side Are You On? is just another addition to DiFranco’s discography. It’s a typical performance from Ani DiFranco, but she has also gradually branched out and grown with her lyric writing. For an artist that’s usually as prolific as DiFranco, the first new record in four years is quite welcome. There is no one in music quite like DiFranco—from her rejection to major labels to her direct and forthright lyrics about social and political issues, she occupies a certain niche. Her influences from Seeger to Dylan have always shown up and the tribute to Seeger in this record makes this clear. In this manner, DiFranco’s political activism has always seemed rooted in the ‘60s and ‘70s when rock and folk were intertwined in the liberal movements of the day. The current political and economic unrest, although unfortunate, are the perfect new environment for DiFranco. In this case, after 20 years, she may finally see a larger audience from the dissatisfied masses. Which Side Are You On? shows all of DiFranco’s strengths and weaknesses and it displays her increasing maturity where she is finally at peace with herself, but hasn’t lost her biting wit. At this point, audiences will know what they think of Ani DiFranco and Which Side Are You On? is unlikely to change this sentiment. Ani DiFranco hasn’t changed, but the political and economic unrest around her has, strengthening her music and message.