[1 October 2008]
“I thought I’d sing you a song about my baby daddy.”
That’s how Ani DiFranco introduced her song, “Way Tight”, during a November 10, 2006 performance at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. In that same intro, captured for compact disc as part of DiFranco’s “Official Bootleg” series, the Buffalo, New York native goes on to discuss her residency in New Orleans, Louisiana, and her love for the culture and music of the city. Inspired by the region’s optimism, she details her “little mission to write happy songs.” With a hearty laugh, she says, “It’s haaaaaard,” although her “baby daddy” was making the songwriting process “easy.” “So far, they’re all kind of about one subject,” she adds, partially joking. She calls “Way Tight”, a delightfully intimate little acoustic ditty, the first of these new tunes.
Aside from the fact that she’s a thrilling live performer, the significance of all this is that Ani DiFranco is well known for two things. One, she has a knack for setting her anger and frustration to music in creative ways, and covering an array of topics like religion, politics, war, heartbreak, feminism, racism, and the death penalty. That whole Angry Folksinger depiction is merely a caricature of her diverse and multifaceted career, but her edgier lyrics (like “Everyone is a fucking Napoleon”) seem to make bigger splashes than her softer ones (like “You try not to let your emotions show / But it ain’t a balloon you can just let go”). A “happy” album begs the question of how far this happiness can go. Will it affect her songwriting?
The other thing is her independence. An effective do-it-yourselfer, Ani DiFranco famously turned down record deals from major labels in favor of running her own record company, Righteous Babe. Through this venture, she’s amassed an assortment of retail items: albums (including work by other artists), singles, live recordings, DVDs, books, posters, key chains, clothes, guitar picks, and all manner of “Babe” memorabilia. With all of her touring and prolific songwriting, it’s worth pondering what would happen if she took a break and gave herself a breather between releases.
It looks like we have an answer to that. Two years after the release of her last album of new studio material (2006’s Reprieve), DiFranco brings us Red Letter Year, a 12-track festival of folk, rock, and funk tied together by her sharply astute lyricism and wit.
During those two years, she also gave birth to a daughter, Petah Lucia. Normally, this probably wouldn’t be relevant, but in this case, the artist pays tribute to the experience on her new album. There’s a sweet, bouncy track called “Present/Infant”, plus a song set in labor called “Landing Gear”. In the aforementioned concert recording of “Way Tight”, Ms. DiFranco admitted that she’d been having bad dreams about the birthing process. Having never gone through labor and childbirth, she wasn’t altogether sure what to expect. “All of the fear and the pain,” she says, “is represented in these bizarre outward ways, like, y’know, a guy with an axe comes…” She has, however, embraced it all through songwriting.
And with Red Letter Year, she just might’ve achieved the happy medium that has alluded her in the past. That is, if you listen to, and believe, the critiques. But let’s be clear about this. If “being happy” means Ani Difranco hasn’t got a care in the world and no longer wears the sleeve embossed with her politics, think again. It’s not that kind of album. She’s not partying like it’s 2099 as much as she’s hoping that, when it is 2099, somebody will have something to party about.
But that’s not the whole story, as we see in the album’s more tender moments. A good example is “Smiling Underneath”, where DiFranco reassures an unspecified “you” that, no matter what’s going on, she’s all right and “having a good time” as long as “I’m with you”. Sustained by her connection with this person, she’s willing to endure life’s annoyances—waiting in line, bills, rude people, being “Stuck in traffic for over a week / With a car full of quintuplets who are all cuttin’ teeth”. See? Ani DiFranco’s got a sentimental side.
With uncanny precision, she has successfully mixed the public and the private, the worldly and the personal, and she has wedded this amalgam to heavy percussion, sublime guitar, strings, piano, marimba, and bells. The result is simultaneously comfortable and innovative, generally familiar but specifically new, and always, always compelling. While her music has been lyrically and stylistically diverse, Red Letter Year is supremely cohesive. “I am many things made of everything”, she sings in “Alla This”. Indeed.
Maybe this duality and complexity stems from DiFranco’s immersion in the culture of New Orleans, a city so rich in history and heritage, yet forever changed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana’s influence manifests in spirited appearances from pedal steel guitarist Richard Comeaux, C.C. Adcock, and the Rebirth Brass Band.
Maybe it was her journey through the birthing process and all of the excitement and insecurity it inspires. In “Present/Infant”, she begins, “Lately I’ve been glaring into mirrors / Picking myself apart”. Whatever the reason, Red Letter Year is rife with ideas that could have become an unworkable mass of contradictions had they not been so well executed.
In terms of motif, Red Letter Year is reminiscent of Revelling/Reckoning, DiFranco’s double-disc set from 2001. Revelling/Reckoning is my favorite Ani Difranco album, in spite of its arguable shortcomings. I know a few of the songs on the Revelling disc might have worked just as well on the Reckoning disc (“Garden of Simple”, “Marrow”). And, yes, I realize the Reckoning disc holds both of the “Revelling” and “Reckoning” title tracks, which sort of undermines the whole point of having a specific theme for each disc. And I also get that some people weren’t feeling the jazz vibe that characterized the DiFranco sound at the time.
It’s understandable too that Revelling/Reckoning would be criticized for its length. “It’s too long,” some of us said. “It’s got too much filler.” Here, Red Letter Year synthesizes and distills these “revelling” and “reckoning” moods into a single disc. At a little over 47 minutes, it packs a wallop. No wasted space, no bloated tracklist. Red Letter Year is lean, taut, and efficient. If you look at the title track as a year-long New Year’s Eve party, Red Letter Year is the party guest who has a great time and dazzles everyone during the festivities (”[W]e dropped mushrooms and danced around the house”), but knows when it’s time to go home. Since Red Letter Year is the designated driver, Red Letter Year is the one you call when you’ve gotten too drunk on the status quo to navigate your way to safety.
Musically, it’s different from the acoustic folk of her earliest albums, or albums like Educated Guess (2004) and Reprieve (2006). It’s far removed from the harder-edged rock of Dilate (1996), and nowhere near as experimental and whimsical as Little Plastic Castles. Another contrast is Knuckle Down (2005), with its warm, string-y atmosphere and co-production from Joe Henry.
But to draw another comparison to her Revelling/Reckoning era, which includes Evolve (2003), DiFranco has recruited a band again. Knuckle Down featured great guest musicians too, but the different sound and theme of that record undermines attempts to compare it to Red Letter Year. Then, for the last few years, she’s been touring as a duo with upright bassist Todd Sickafoose, a pleasure to listen to in his own right. Now, with a larger pail, Red Letter Year draws water from a variety of wells, including the intriguing funk of “Emancipated Minor”, which sounds like Dirty Mind-era Prince. Still, the biggest treat is the drumming, which mostly replaces DiFranco’s usual percussive guitar picking, lending a creative pulse that’s so heavy and dramatic it parades through the whole of the album. You even notice when it’s not there, as in the gentle touch of “Star Matter”, or the first 40 seconds of “Good Luck”.
Red Letter Year‘s New Year’s Eve setting isn’t an accident. Conceptually, it appropriates the usual suspects of our yuletide spirit and holiday cheer, and it reallocates them according to the DiFranco worldview and understanding. Our Christmas and New Year celebrations are informed by tradition, religion, and folklore, particularly with respect to Santa Claus and gift giving, the Nativity story and the relationship between a very special child (Jesus) and the world, the implicit and explicit acknowledgment of a divine power, and the making of resolutions following the arrival of the New Year.
It’s a similar, though more customized, version for Ani DiFranco on Red Letter Year. The gift and the child are the same in “Present/Infant”, where “present” can mean “gift” in addition to its temporal meaning, and the title displays a meaningful slash between “present” and “infant”. The presence of the divine power translates into DiFranco’s view of “intelligent design”, manifesting through nature and science in “The Atom” (“Yes, messing with the atom / Is the highest form of blasphemy”). “The Atom”, packing a dense and intense lyrical punch, might have also worked as one of DiFranco’s spoken-word pieces, along the lines of “Self-Evident” (about George W. Bush and the tragedy of September 11, 2001) and “Parameters” (about privacy and personal boundaries), among many others. Thematically, we’ve seen strokes of “The Atom” in her previous work. In Evolve‘s “Icarus”, she sang: “And I don’t mean ‘heaven’ like god-like / ‘Cause the animal I am knows very well / That nature is our teacher and our mother / And ‘god’ is just another story that we tell”.
Meanwhile, the New Year’s resolutions appear in the truly transcendent “Alla This” (“I won’t let you make a tool of me / I will keep my mind and body free”).
Although Difranco’s customization might seem biting (“I won’t pray to a male god / ‘Cause you know that would be insane”), the intent seems to be positive. For instance, in “Alla This”, she belts the line, “I can’t support the troops / ‘Cause every last one of them is being duped”, which might sound a bit callous at first listen. However, when she sang the song at an October 18, 2007, concert in Hamburg, Germany, she explained the lyric in the context of the limited dialogue surrounding the war in Iraq. In her view, attempts in the United States to stimulate discussion and debate were being met with “Support the Troops” slogans. She analogized this to shutting down questions about the illegal practices of a large oil company with responses like, “Hey, you gotta support the office workers! Support the secretaries!” In this light, her message, much like her refrain in 1999’s “Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up” (“God’s work isn’t done by God / It’s done by people”), embraces self-motivation and personal responsibility for what we do to each other and how we conduct ourselves as world citizens.
Since 1990, she’s been releasing at least one disc of music a year. Two years, then, feels like a long time to wait for an Ani DiFranco album. But when the results are as gorgeous as this, patience is a small price to pay.