There are a few unenlightened individuals out there who think that, if you’re a straight white guy, Ani DiFranco albums will know who you are when you pick them up, leap from their packaging, and chop off your naughty bits.
Let me assure you that this is not the case.
Let me further assure you that there is no line for the men’s room at an Ani DiFranco concert. You have time to pee a little bit in each lonely urinal, if you’re so inclined. I mention this because I took my girlfriend to see Ani DiFranco at the Oprheum for our anniversary this year and that’s where I first heard the bulk of the songs that make up Red Letter Year, Ani DiFranco’s millionth album (possibly an exaggeration, but the woman has been nothing if not prolific since she started back in the 1990s).
Red Letter Year is, right out of the box, a sunnier album than you might be used to from Ani DiFranco, assuming you’re used to Ani DiFranco albums. The same woman who brought us, “Fuck you/ and your untouchable face” is now singing about how she’d be smiling if she were stuck in traffic with her new guy (the father of her baby, and we’ll get to that later) with a flaming Christmas wreath around her neck.
DiFranco has been one of the most staunchly and truly independent artists in music for nearly 20 years – her stuff is out on a label she started (Righteous Babe) and she does not seem to have ever been tempted to make a serious bid for Top 40-type success (although some chick covered “32 Flavors” back in ’98, I still have never heard Ani’s voice on the radio). Instead, she’s earned a loyal base of fans by consistently releasing albums and touring her ass off.
Red Letter Year, in fact, is DiFranco’s poppiest album to date (this is kinda like saying something is Tom Waits’ poppiest album or Gavin Bryars’ poppiest or… you get the idea), which I largely attribute to her self-declared new mantra: “Don’t forget to have a good time.” DiFranco’s critics (and there are many; like Bruce Springsteen, DiFranco has both rabid fans who think you’re awful if you don’t like her music and rabid detractors who think that liking her music makes you some sort of brainwashed leftist wacko. Neither case is the truth – DiFranco can be strident and even obnoxious with her politics at times, but I like that – I’m a Billy Bragg fan, remember – however, I’m still a reasonable person. In short, liking or not liking Ani DiFranco’s music is okay; hating people for how they feel about her music is fucking stupid) have, in the past dinged her for being too angry, and while I could write you an entire essay on that topic (entitled “Ani DiFranco is Probably, At the Very Least, Appropriately Angry”) , suffice it to say that outrage has caused some (not all) of her albums to come off as a little one-dimensional. Like all good artists, her best work transcends whatever political statements it’s trying to make and is good art first. In short, I like Ani DiFranco because I like her voice, she plays guitar like no one I’ve ever heard, and she writes intelligently even if you don’t always agree with her.
But enough about her. Let’s talk about the music: Red Letter Year opens with its title track, a rather typical song for DiFranco: down-tempo, cautiously optimistic, and contrasting personal joy and optimism with social worry. The album doesn’t really throw a curveball in the first couple of tracks, but “Present/Infant” comes along and outs itself as DiFranco’s poppiest song to date: it’s concise, melodic, and features the biggest ray-of-sunshine lyric I’ve ever heard Ani sing: “Love is all over the place.” The other impressive trick that “Present/Infant” turns is that it is, ostensibly, a song about Ani’s daughter (born earlier this year or late last year, I forget) that manages not to piss me off. If you’re one of my 6 to 9 (on average) readers, you know that this is no mean feat. This is largely because Ani is reflecting on the fact that she, Ani Di-Fucking-Franco, sometimes feels bad when she looks in the mirror; rather than a saccharine celebration of parenthood, the song becomes a solemn vow not to pass on the stupid societal ideas about the female form to her daughter.
As if “Present/Infant”‘s resolute optimism isn’t shocking enough, DiFranco follows it right up with “Smiling Underneath”, the afore-mentioned “I love you so much I can’t even be annoyed by the TSA at the airport” song. (I love my girlfriend more than anything, but I still find time to be irritated by the TSA.) That sugar-plum of a song is followed by “Way Tight,” a very very sweet tune that is nonetheless an honest look at the complications and contradictions of actually bothering with love and relationships. “Way Tight” is bluesy, sultry, and one of the more compelling reasons to enjoy Ani DiFranco for her voice – while the teen pop chicks are out there burying their botched notes in digital effects, DiFranco’s voice has the naked honesty that really good folk music requires.
But my favorite song on Red Letter Year is “The Atom,” Ani’s little love note to science and perspective. Advocating for reason in the U.S. these days is like putting a “Kick Me” sign on your back (or a “Brand Me as an America-Hating Liberal” sign, if you prefer) and “The Atom” is an appeal for reason and activism. Might make a good addition to Brian Greene’s I-Pod. Sure, the science is over-simplified and poeticized, but remember: there are people who think the Large Hadron Collider will end the universe, that being homosexual is a choice, and that you should have to have babies that were put in you by rapists. Contrasted with that, “The Atom,” is pretty fucking soothing.
Overall, if you didn’t like Ani DiFranco before, you might like one or two songs here, but Red Letter Year isn’t going to convert you. If you were/are an Ani fan, you’ll be surprised by a few tracks and probably really dig this album. I was talking to my old boss last night about Red Letter Year and she exclaimed that this album is “so happy!” This statement was made, of course, in the context of a question: “Will hardcore Ani fans like this album?” They should – you can love an artist’s anger all you want, but you shouldn’t begrudge them their happiness. We tend to think that artists get worse as they get happier and you can rattle off a ton of pretty good examples, but I’ve got a battery of counter-examples ready for you: Tom Waits has been happily married for most of my life and still makes the best broken-ass music in the business. The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne has a happy, stable marriage, and is one of the most compelling artists in music. Tad Kubler, guitarist for The Hold Steady (and best rock guitarist in the world right now), has kids! In other words, the best artists are good artists and it’s only a sign that they’re slipping creatively when the happiness of their home-lives leads them to write shitty songs. This means you, Elvis Costello.