Feminist icon Ani DiFranco has released 17 studio albums over the last three decades and, with Righteous Babe Records in 1990, became one of the first independent artists to launch her own label. Ruth Rosselson listens to her first album to be released in over three years and finds that DiFranco is still not afraid of tackling thought-provoking issues while making us smile and sing along
It’s been over 10 years since I last reviewed an Ani DiFranco album so I greeted the release of ¿Which Side Are You On? with some trepidation and excitement. One of the things I’ve always loved about Ani’s work is that she is a songwriter with something to say and her music is the perfect vehicle for her lyrics. She has never been one to follow the mainstream, nor to sacrifice her principles or artistry in pursuit of chart success. As a result, she has had a prestigious output, started her own record label and garnered a loyal and enthusiastic fan base.
I’m happy to report that this new album does not disappoint and that, reassuringly, Ani DiFranco has not lost any of her politics as she’s matured. “I’m testing deeper waters with the political songs on this album,” she says. “I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to.”
The music, while tuneful, never overshadows Ani’s lyrics and never obscures them either. The album’s title comes from the union song ‘Which Side Are You On’, popularised by folk legend Pete Seeger and also familiar to Billy Bragg fans. Seeger’s distinctive banjo playing opens the title track, reminding us of the song’s origins, before the electric guitar kicks in and a great full brass sound makes an appearance later on.
Musically, it’s a skilful updating of this folk standard to a rousing upbeat and fresh-sounding protest song. It’s not just the music that Ani’s updated, she’s worked on the lyrics too, incorporating America’s recent political history: Obama’s election victory, consumerism and feminism. “My mother was a feminist, she taught me to see, the road to ruin is paved with patriarchy,” she sings, pointing out that feminism isn’t just for women – it’s about a shift in consciousness. It’s rare enough for a musician to admit to being a feminist, let alone for them to openly sing about it. I love this version, with the chorus “which side are you on?” reminding me that it’s all about taking responsibility – and being the change we wish to see. This is big band Ani and it works on all levels.
Not afraid to tackle the theme we don’t hear in songs very often, the sombre ‘Amendment’ takes up the thorny (especially in America) issue of abortion, arguing that it is central to the civil rights of women. In the more upbeat ‘Promiscuity’ Ani likens promiscuity to travelling the world – “some of us like to stick close to home and some of us are Columbus.” It’s a fun song, yet there’s a serious message behind it. I love it when she sings: “How you gonna know what you need, what you like, ’til you’ve been around the block a few times on that bike?”
It’s not all politics though. ‘Mariachi’ is a simple love song, celebrating the partnership itself rather than the subject of her love: “You and me, we make a mariachi band,” she sings joyfully. This mood contrasts strongly with the album’s final song. ‘Zoo’ is a downbeat piece with powerful lyrics and you sense that this is introspective Ani, wondering whether or not the songs she writes really do make a difference. “If I should ever quit your spotlight, I hope you won’t think me wrong,” she sings. I won’t think her wrong but I do believe it would be a shame for such an eloquent writer to give up now, as we currently need songs with power, hope and politics more than ever.
I have to admit I do find some of the tracks a little too musically downbeat, meaning that my attention wanders easily; the tracks that work best for me are those where the tune keeps me entertained and the lyrics keep me engaged. But that is the problem I’ve always had with Ani’s work – so it’s probably just a matter of taste. Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to the majority of tracks. Overall, this is not an album to be bopping round the living room to, but one to make you think, smile, sing along. It is also one that highlights Ani’s skills as a lyricist. For her, the personal is political and it is so wonderful in the age of bland singer-songwriters to have an album full of songs with meaning, songs with words that matter, songs about the state of the world and contemplative songs about more than just love or breakups.
¿Which Side Are You On? is not a major departure for Ani DiFranco. She sticks to what she’s good at and she does it well. If you’re into gentle acoustic singer-songwriters with attitude and haven’t heard her yet, this album is a fine place to start. Then, from here, you can work through her extensive back catalogue!