Album Reviews

Ani DiFranco – Unprecedented Sh!t

(Righteous Babe) UK release date: 12 July 2024

Her most experimental and varied set for many years, this is the sound of an artist with plenty of fire in her belly and with much still to say

Ani DiFranco - Unprecedented Sh!t Since releasing her self-titled debut album back in 1990, Ani DiFranco has become so much more than the self-styled ‘lil folk singer’ she started out as. A few years ago she released a successful memoir, and earlier this year added ‘Broadway actress’ to her resume by appearing in Anaïs Mitchell‘s phenomenal Hadestown musical in New York.

It’s fair to say though, that musically, she’s been treading water. In recent years, she’s settled into a comfortable, jazzy-folk sound: none of her albums have been disappointments, but you knew what you were getting from DiFranco – languid, deliberately paced laments about the state of the world. The fizzling energy of her staccato finger-picking days on the wondrous Living In Clip live double-set seemed a long way away.

Which makes Unprecedented Sh!t, her 23rd studio album, such a surprise – not exactly unprecedented (this is still very much an Ani DiFranco album) but her most experimental and varied set for many years. It consists of songs written between 2011 and the present day which hadn’t seemed to fit on any previous albums. And it’s a delight to hear DiFranco properly indulge her weird side.

Baby Roe is one of the loudest, most stirring songs DiFranco’s recorded for years: inspired by Joshua Prager’s book The Family Roe which told the history of the landmark Roe V Wade judgement, which was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 2022. It’s a subject close to DiFranco’s heart, and when the song bursts into life during its swelling chorus, it’s an exhilarating moment.

There’s also plenty of experimentation with more industrial sounds. The title track is strange and glitchy, full of crunchy guitars and DiFranco contributing her own howling backing vocals. Virus, meanwhile, hits the distortion pedals, sounding like the lost love child of Tom Waits and Nine Inch Nails, with DiFranco reflecting on the chance that the pandemic meant that she was “so deeply pleased to pause this life” while also thinking that she’d “jinxed the world and caused this strife”. It’s one of her most vital sounding songs in some time, rattling with a kinetic energy all of its own.

Those who miss the acoustic moments of DiFranco won’t be disappointed either: More Or Less Free is a starkly beautiful ballad about the dynamics of a friendship with someone who’s serving life in prison, while Boots Of A Soldier has some classic DiFranco guitar stylings and some wry lyrics about the stories that her trusty army boots could tell.

The influence of producer BJ Burton should not be underplayed either – previously, he’d worked with Bon Iver on his gratifyingly obtuse 22, A Million album and many of that album’s more esoteric psych-folk moments are brought into play with DiFranco. Whether it be her voice glitching slightly on You Forget To Speak or the gently pulse of the opening Spinning Room, Burton keeps adding little touches that you may only notice on repeated plays.

It may not be an album that would open her up to the mainstream success that she’s only floated on the fringes of, but for anyone worried that Ani DiFranco had settled into a comforting middle-age, Unprecedented Sh!t is the sound of an artist with plenty of fire in her belly and with much still to say.

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