Ani’s Latest is Better than Previous Shmaltz
After more than a few boring and downright trite songs, Ani DiFranco is finally back on track with Evolve. Listeners worried about Ani DiFranco’s descent into the realms of schmaltz, as exhibited by parts of To the Teeth (1999) and the majority of the two-disc set Revelling/Reckoning (2001), will breathe huge sighs of relief. From the creative outer packaging and liner notes down to the details of each individual lyric, Evolve is a tuneful, articulate, coherent, and conscientious but not overly self-indulgent album.
Although Evolve is on par with many of Difranco’s other past greats, the album most closely resembles Little Plastic Castle, DiFranco’s popular and critically acclaimed hit of 1998. Like Castle, Evolve features a brass section, although in a more natural and integrated way than her previous efforts. Similarly, many songs draw upon DiFranco’s latest forays into funk, but much more successfully than ever before; her newfound experience is particularly evident in the soulful vocal self-duet on “O My My” and the dissonant and stark “Icarus.” Songs like “Slide” and “Phase” recall DiFranco’s past signature frenetic finger-picking and string slapping. Likewise, her lyrics are back to their high standard, on par with anything she’s done, and are oftentimes simultaneously funny, serious, witty, knowing, and wise. Only a songwriter as sure of her abilities as DiFranco could combine raunchiness and humour into a compelling visual image as in the lines “My pussy is a tractor, and this is a tractor pull / I’m haunted by my illicit, explicit dreams” from “Slide”, or marry brevity with pathos as in the lines “it depends if you’re trying to get to the promised land / or you’re just trying to get by” from “Promised Land.”
Although the album recalls recent and past efforts executed in a masterful way, like all of DiFranco’s albums it certainly breaks new ground and contains its own share of surprises. Among them are the successful Latin-esque “Here for Now,” the beautifully bittersweet “Second Intermission,” and the epic Serpentine. The latter is a tour-de-force, beginning with an impressive and moving solo instrumental, and continuing into eight minutes of sparsely but beautifully accompanied text. The song’s lyric, unlike the overly straightforward and simplistic “Self-Evident” on DiFranco’s So Much Shouting, is rich and multi-faceted and given a deeply expressive delivery. DiFranco packs more layers of meaning in a single phrase than most people do in a whole album, as she reflects on modern society, highlighting deficiencies in the government, along with globalization and homogenization (“the democrins and the republicrats / are flashing their toothy smiles”); the modern “thrill” culture (“folks just really couldn’t care less / as long as every day is Superbowl Sunday”); and corruption and exploitation (“the profit system follows the path of least resistance / and the path of least resistance/ is what makes the river crooked / makes it serpentine”).
DiFranco is an always ambitious musician who, like any great artist, is in a constant state of evolution. The confident and moving Evolve is proof that it is possible to both embrace evolution with all the risks it entails and produce works that are easily distinct and as great or greater than previous successes.