Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down

Katie Zerwas

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.

Ani Difranco

Knuckle Down

Label: Righteous Babe
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.