Red Letter Year finds Ani DiFranco more optimistic and upbeat than she’s ever been before. “I’ve got myself a new mantra,” she sings on “Present/Infant,” “It says: Don’t forget to have a good time.” A meditation on mortality and vanity from the perspective of a new mother, the song includes a lyric that could be interpreted as pro-life—surprising for a career-long advocate for choice: “I would defend/To the ends of the earth/Her perfect right to be.” There’s a softness to DiFranco’s songs that we’ve rarely heard throughout her storied 18-year career, and while there’s no substantive indication that DiFranco has changed her politics (in most areas, she seems more liberal—and more liberated—than ever), motherhood has clearly shaken up her worldview. And that’s probably a good thing.
At times, it even seems like DiFranco is inching perilously close to finding religion, as she sounds most passionate when examining the metaphysical. The twist is that her deity of choice is Mother Nature—not Jesus, or the Almighty Dollar. Atop an orchestra of marimba, tubular bells and strings, DiFranco builds an altar to “the smallest unit of matter” on “The Atom,” a sly condemnation of war-driven patriarchy hidden in an anecdote about a distant relative: “I have this great great uncle/Who worked on the atomic bomb/He got a Nobel Prize in physics/And a place in this song/And I bet there were no windows/And no women in the room/When they applied themselves/To the pure science of boom.” The standout “Alla This,” which finds DiFranco happily wielding an electric guitar, combines her newfound new-age-y outlook (“I am expanding exponentially/I am consciousness without identity”) with classic anti-establishment Ani (“I will not be your bankroll”) that should please longtime fans.
DiFranco is still passionate about her politics (she finds time to reference global warming, polar bears and New Orleans, where the album was recorded) but her lyrics are weaker than on her most recent efforts: A dig at Bush on the title track feels trite at this late date (she calls him “a man with a monkey for a face”), while her rationale for not supporting the troops on “Alla This” is logically flimsy—or, at best, just the result of a hastily constructed rhyme (“I can’t support the troops/‘Cause every last one of them is being duped”). The awkward, oblong couplets and jazz-horn vocals of her output during the early part of the decade, however, are gone; there’s a pop simplicity to songs like “Smiling Underneath” and the material here is further proof that she’s continuing to rediscover her sense of melody.
The most obvious musical difference from her last studio album, 2006’s Reprieve, is the addition of live drums and percussion, and with the aide of producer Mike Napolitano, we get some refreshing new shapes and sounds from DiFranco. Following a long string of disappointing albums, it’s hard to shake the sense that praising decent material from the folk singer is like celebrating the fact that the shit isn’t higher than shoe-level. But there’s nothing close to shitty about Red Letter Year; it’s DiFranco’s third redemptive studio album in a row (starting with 2005’s Knuckle Down) and that’s certainly something worth celebrating.