Leaving her politics by the side of the road, Ani DiFranco picks up a whole lot of emotional baggage. Can Knuckle Down handle the freight? Probably not.
Releasing one album per year for 15 years may be a rarefied feat for lesser artists, but for pioneer folk-rock siren Ani DiFranco it's more akin to a paradisiacal promenade in an anti-heteropatriarchal park. Similarly, DiFranco's latest annual release would be an artistic triumph for any other artist, quaking with machine-gunning guitars and slamming lyric poetry, ratcheted up to feverish rock and roll bravado with a brilliant ensemble of backing of musicians perfectly synced to the singer-guitarist's every twitch and snarl. But, this is not any guitar slung feminist, this is the progenitor of the genre, and what should be easy listening on a critic's sore ears falls just shy of DiFranco's self-elevated expectations. What at first appears to be a refreshing and dramatic turn away from the impressive albeit self-indulgent solo production of her previous release Educated Guess and a return to the synergetic stage presence of her younger self, gradually begins to conceptually collude with the images of her expanding line of faux cut-up logo tees, her perfectly coiffed photo on the album's cover along with the album's egocentric themes, and suddenly a word picture materializes reading "sell-out". Knuckle Down looms as both a pleasing musical achievement and a disappointing move from music's best progressive songstress at a time in history when the people's voice is so painfully left out of the corporate media behemoth and the re-inaugurated Bush Administration as it declares "Political Capital Payback Time" on the American constituency. Without the gravity of her political center, DiFranco's work is beautiful, but lighter than air.
Knuckle Down opens with a slice of Ani at her best. The self-titled track is a mechanical bull ride on gritty peanut shell strewn concrete, with her signature aggressive acoustic guitar assault and penetrating lyrics that set the tone for a deeply introspective album. The following track, "Studying Stones" is a poignant ode to the artist's back-pages and bittersweet memories with stirring strings and a haunting chorus. These two tracks together stand as a monument to her maturity and unmatched brilliance as a songwriter, but already they hint at the larger troublesome turn away from the body politic to the bodily artist. "Modulation" is a tight pop song that buzzes with sparse rock guitars and moody keyboards recalling the early songs of a less jaded Fiona Apple, yet therein lies the problem as DiFranco roots through her emotional baggage, urging "we set each other free" while making it clear that the pronoun refers to a romantic partner, not a romanticized umanist collective conscious, the Marxist collectivity, or the raised feminist consciousness. By "Recoil", the album's closing track, DiFranco's posturing sounds awfully like a very brilliant take on a not-so-brilliant Sheryl Crow, as her talented Righteous Babe collective kicks into high pop-rock gear mixed with a twanging alt-country twist, while the Babe herself puts on a breathy performance that seems to yearn for radio airplay.
Knuckle Down may show DiFranco to be a bit buttoned up, but despite her relinquished edge she still embraces the musical fringe. The best example is the poem "Parameters," which as the only poem on the album represents what some might consider an overall disappointing break with her recent turn away from melody and an exploration of slam poetry, setting it to atmospheric and slightly atonal music. Yet, this single track encapsulates her remarkable lyric talent as she uses the shock and fear of sexual violence as a literal theme and a metaphor for the fear of losing one's youth and the shock of having to consolidate one's dreams. With "Seeing Eye Dog," DiFranco explores a blues-inspired vocal style, adding the stark tones of Todd Sickafoose's upright bass and a haunting percussion track composed of what sounds like ghostly clanging pipes.
Most of the album, however, is standard-issue Ani DiFranco to be found a-plenty in her extensive back catalog, only this time around the punk politics has hit the highway. The only political song on the album is "Paradigm", which is a melodically beautiful song, but one that feels more like a therapy session in which DiFranco rehashes the signposts of her personal life in order to bring closure to past. No artist should be forcibly tied to and then martyred for their political and personal beliefs, but it is difficult to not be troubled by one artist's retreat from the counter-cultural union of the personal and political toward a more perfect union of the personal and capital with an album that has been more heavily merchandized and more artistically mainstreamed than any this artist's career. The album is solidly grounded, but DiFranco's fans may find themselves on the fence.