So another year, another Ani DiFranco album. In fact, every year since 1991 has seen a DiFranco album released (including two double live albums), each one as perfectly crafted and beautifully played as its predecessor. Knuckle Down is the New York singer’s thirteenth studio album and represents quite a departure for the original Righteous Babe who was an independent woman long before Beyoncé had ever shaken her booty.
In an about turn from the self-produced, self-played Educated Guess, DiFranco has drafted in a collaborator this time around. Well respected songwriter Joe Henry toured with DiFranco last year and he takes co-producing duties here. There are also guest musicians again this time, including DiFranco’s recent touring partner, bassist Todd Sickafoose.
The results are like a breath of fresh air. While nobody could argue that recent DiFranco albums such as Evolve or Educated Guess were bad, it’s likely they tested the patience of some of her less committed fans. By contrast, Knuckle Down is probably her most accessible album since 1999’s To The Teeth and contains some of her most winning songs in a while.
The title track for example opens with some superb finger-picking guitar work (and isn’t it about time that DiFranco was recognised as a truly great guitarist as well as a prolific songwriter?), before settling down nicely into a classic ‘Ani-style’ melody. She’s been through some tough times recently, with the death of her father and her marriage break up, and the title track seems to address her coming to terms with these issues (“I’m I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss…I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this”).
Some have expressed surprise at the personal nature of the lyrics here, given DiFranco’s profile as a progressive political voice, yet that is to ignore the fact that she’s always been an expert chronicler of the workings of the human heart. This is probably her most personal album since the wonderful Dilate. Callous in particular is a typically uncompromising look at the break up of her marriage (“you can’t will yourself happy, you can’t will your c*nt wet” runs one line) while Manhole (previewed on her recent tour) is about a man who “quietly moves his wedding ring, who rewrites his autobiography for any pretty girl who’ll sing”).
Musically, there’s also much to pour over here, with DiFranco appearing to move away from the jazzy folk that’s been her trademark over the last few years. Seeing Eye Dog is a bluesy number comparable to Tom Waits, with its industrial clanks and noises, while Modulation, Lagtime and the aforementioned Manhole are all fine examples of the biting folk that DiFranco made her name on.
This year’s spoken word contribution is one of the highlights as well – Parameters, a rather chilling tale of a woman coming home to find a man sat in her bedroom. Over a ghostly, atmospheric backing, DiFranco describes a “a man you don’t know who came a long way to deliver one very specific message: lock your back door, you idiot”. The effect is quite stunning.
As well as all of that there’s also Paradigm, the touching tribute to her parents who were “two immigrants…happy to pay taxes…they took it seriously, this second job of citizenry” which explains where her activism was rooted and the closing Recoil which again sees the singer taking stock of her troubles and looking to her late father for inspiration.
So another year, another Ani DiFranco album. And while she’s seemingly incapable of making a bad record, Knuckle Down is one of the best of her career. When you look at the woman’s past record, that’s some statement.