Evolve seems a particularly appropriate title for Ani DiFranco’s 15th album in 13 years. Back in 1990, her stock in trade was acoustic folk ballads, full of blistering feminist invective. Now in 2003, she’s graduated to a more jazzy, funky sound, and the lyrics have gradually become more personal.
For DiFranco’s loyal followers, this development was a leisurely evolution – indeed, the sound here will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Little Plastic Castles or the first disc on the Reckoning/Revelling album. It means that she’s mastered the sound now, so her band sound very tight – at times it almost seems as if the album has been recorded live, that’s how good it sounds.
As if to deflect the concerns of her die-hard fans, Ani addresses this in the opener Promised Land. “What’s with this new version of who you are?” she asks herself as the horn section wraps itself round the languid melody. In The Way, contrastingly puts a rather funky guitar sound against some truly heartbreaking lyrics depicting the break up of a relationship – especially poignant when you hear she’s recently separated from her husband.
Despite the expertise of the horn section that dominates the record, it should not be forgotten that DiFranco is a superb guitar player, as anyone who has seen her live will testify to. Her finger-picking acoustic playing on the title track is a wonder to hear, with some quite brilliant lyrics taking in both the political and personal. Her voice too, has never sounded better than it does here.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ani DiFranco album without a blistering political critique, which comes here in the form of Serpentine. An almost impossibly wordy 10 minute track, she takes in topics such as Enron (“the CEO’s are shredding files”), US politics (“the democrins and republicrats are flashing their toothy smiles…the mind control is steep here”), the music industry and September 11 (“the Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York”). Half singing, half speaking the lyrics, she’s backed by just an acoustic guitar, and the song is all the more impressive when you learn it was recorded in just one take.
Evolve is yet another example of DiFranco’s immense talent. It probably won’t win her any new fans – it’s not easy listening at times, but this is to be expected. The quite beautiful album packaging is a bonus too – an added touch that demonstrates quite why she is so highly regarded by her fans.