It seems odd that Ani DiFranco’s latest album Reprieve would begin with a gunshot, until you consider just how muffled and distant that gunshot is. Consider it as a violent expression quieted, and it becomes a perfect metaphor for the rest of Reprieve, an album that houses big ideas in humble packages, calls-to-arms, protests, and confused relationships presented in a quiet, laid-back, acoustic setting. As such, it’s one of the few Ani albums for which one may not be able to form an immediate opinion — these are songs that have to gestate, plant their seeds in your mind and let them grow to their full potential over the course of many, many listens. Reprieve may not court new members to the Church of Ani, but it may well be one of those albums that fans hold up as an underappreciated favorite in the years to come.
Don’t worry, Ani’s not going soft, it just sounds as though she’s in a contemplative mood, thinking about the world around her more than simply reacting to it. Her topics of conversation are still the same as they ever were: Politics and relationships with a heavy dollop of feminism are represented here, sometimes more subtly than others, but almost always in a way that invites quiet contemplation rather than fist-waving agreement and calls to action. Rather than implore, Ani observes, and her messages are made all the more potent, if a bit harder to see, for it.
“I mean, to split yourself in two is just the most radical thing you can do / Goddess forbid that little Adam should grow so jealous of Eve / And in the face of the great farce of the nuclear age / Feminism ain’t about equality, it’s about reprieve”, says Ani in the uncommonly powerful spoken word of the album’s title track, and it’s easy to see the broad implications of what she’s saying, though she approaches her criticism in a rather indirect manner. It’s a man’s world, and those men and their testosterone-laced desire for bigger and faster and better is destroying that world. “Millenium Theatre”, along with the album’s most direct reference to her hurricane-forced recording shift from New Orleans to Buffalo (“New Orleans bides her time”, she says repeatedly, in one line pointing out the absurdity of the lag time between disaster and response), contains the most pointed barbs at the government, allowing for lines like “Pull the coat tails out from under that little V.P. / Before he has a chance to get in the driver’s seat.” Still, more often, she settles for lines like “Dear friends, women and men / Please check my math once more / In the totality of all war’s history / There’s but one common denominator”, and even as you know where she’s going, she refrains from making it explicit.
Just as prominent as the political leanings, however, are her personal inclinations. “A Spade” details personal exploration in words like “I had to leave the house of conformity / In order to make art / I had to be more and less true / To learn to tell the two apart”, showing a woman just beginning to find the “self” in herself. Relationships with loved ones (“Hypnotized”, “Nicotine”) and her own overwhelming numbness to emotion (“Half-Assed”) also make appearances, the questions always outnumbering the answers as self-inquisition never quite leads to revelation.
This sense of exploration is evident in the musical arrangement of these songs as well, much of it perhaps due to the instrumental limitations (read: possibilities) thrust upon DiFranco by her necessary move from New Orleans to Buffalo in the middle of the recording process. You hear it in the vaguely incongruous, stuttery, and distant drums that appear halfway through “Hypnotize” (which then disappear just as quickly), you hear it in the various synthesized interludes of “Shroud”, and you hear it in the near-industrial clickety-clack of the righteously excellent “Decree”. Hearing the finished product, it’s nearly impossible to think that it germinated in New Orleans with only Ani’s guitar and the stand-up bass of Todd Sickafoose providing the instrumental backing, as the end result is far more rich and diverse than that more sparse setup could have dreamed. Surely the more minimal instrumentation would have carried with it its own charm, but to hear Reprieve as it is, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it without the extra texture filling in the spaces.
From “In the Margins”: “Sometimes I see myself through the eyes of a stray dog / From an alley across the street / And my whole mission just seems so finite / My whole saga just seems so cheap / And that’s when your song calls to me…” It must be difficult for DiFranco to find any hope in a world like this one, a world where entire cities can be wiped out via forces of nature or forces of mankind in barely a blink. While she sees her government and her society as a bleak, self-congratulating patriarchy, however, she still manages to find some comfort in herself and those around her, the ones who make her listen, who ground her in the idea that she is human, and flawed, and beautiful. It is this comfort that has taken a little bit of the edge off of her anger, and allowed her the luxury of thought and contemplation as expressed in her music. It’s beautiful, really, and well worth hearing, particularly if you’ve paid any attention at all to her artistic development up until this point. Ani is still Ani, that much is true, but she is a living human being, and she does grow — with Reprieve, that growth is as obvious and as fascinating to watch as it has ever been.