In this age of corporate culture run riot, Ani DiFranco is proof positive that the independent spirit remains alive and well in some artists. She’s released 16 albums on her own, self-financed label, Righteous Babe, and constant touring and recording have meant that, while still not a household name, she’s built up a fiercely loyal army of followers.
Those followers will be in seventh heaven when they hear Educated Guess. This is a real “back to basics” for the woman who proclaimed on her last tour she was “just a folk singer”. The entire album was recorded and produced by DiFranco on an old eight-track cassette recorder at her home in Buffalo, New York.
The sound of Educated Guess, therefore, couldn’t be more different to that of the jazzy, increasingly complex soundscapes of Evolve or Revelling/Reckoning. The only instruments here are DiFranco’s acoustic guitar and that unmistakeable voice, often multi-tracked to provide her own backing vocals (done to particularly good effect on the superb title track).
The jazz, blues and funk influences remain (especially on the loping Bliss Like This) but overall this is more reminiscent of DiFranco’s earlier albums – yet much more downbeat. For Ani has been through the emotional wringer by all accounts, and many songs on here address the break up from her husband and subsequent divorce. Add to that the presence of a certain George W in the White House and it’s not hard to see why a radical like DiFranco sounds so jaded.
Tracks such as Origami, Swim and Bodily all address relationship break-ups and contain some of the bleakest, emotional lyrics you’ll hear all year. DiFranco can sum up entire spectra of emotions with just one key phrase such as the desperately sad and resigned, “My heart is just a muscle, and simply put, it’s sore,” on Rain Check.
Politics obviously haven’t been forgotten either – the album’s centrepiece Animal declares that “when you grow up surrounded by wilful ignorance, you have to believe mercy has its own country”. It’s classic DiFranco, passionate and angry but retaining enough reserve to stop being hectoring.
On the other hand, some tracks aren’t quite as successful. DiFranco has always included at least one spoken word track on her albums, but there’s no less than four here. Although Platforms and Akimbo are less than 30 seconds long and therefore can’t be accused of overstaying their welcome, the same can’t be said for Grand Canyon. It’s overlong and the lyrics, unusually for DiFranco, are as subtle as a brick (for example, “Why can’t all decent men and women call themselves feminists?”).
These are minor quibbles, however. Each Ani DiFranco album contains more moments of emotion, intelligence and downright beauty than most singers could conjure up in an entire career. Educated Guess is no different, and while its raw, fractured sound won’t be to everyone’s taste, the faithful can rest assured that it is yet another example of the woman’s genius.