Ani DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next. And while her latest direction might not be as emotionally gripping as her previous work, she seems to have come full circle on her double-disc Revelling/Reckoning. Many of the songs find DiFranco singing alone with an acoustic guitar. The appropriately titled “Garden of Simple” begins with “Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter,” a brazen reminder of her old-school lyrical prowess. She also continues her spoken-word tradition on “Tamburitza Lingua” and “Kazoointoit,” where she shows us what “folktronica” really sounds like. “Imagine That” is an intriguing look into the thoughts of a touring artist and provides further insight into the relationship she has with her fans (“In the haze is your face bathed in shadow/And what’s behind you is hidden from sight”), while the beautifully poetic “Grey” is solemn in its simplicity: “What can I say/But I’m wired this way/And you’re wired to me.” The problem, however, is that the album is a bit over-ambitious, one disc reviving her pure folk style while the other continues the muddled jam sessions she’s become so fond of.
Revelling features more upbeat material while Reckoning focuses on slower, more introspective songs, and it might just be further proof that artists indeed make their worst music when they’re happy and in love. The opening track, “Ain’t That the Way,” finds DiFranco, who married a man in 1999 (much to the chagrin of her largely lesbian audience), singing “Love makes me feel so dumb”—and much of it makes her sound dumb too. The lyrical metaphors that were once clever and unexpected now seem awkward and long-winded. On “Reckoning,” she compares a relationship to an amusement park and it all seems very forced. It was once interesting to see where she might go with her horn arrangements, like the ones in “Heartbreak Even” and “What How When Where (Why Who),” but they now seem obtrusive and overindulgent.
A tongue-drum featured on “Your Next Bold Move” provides a minimalist percussive backdrop for DiFranco’s familiar politics: “The left wing was broken long ago/By the sling shot of Cointelpro/And now it’s so hard to have faith in anything.” Her attack of the Reagan Era is typically fierce: “I am Cancer/I am HIV…Just looking up from my pillow feeling blessed.” These are the kinds of songs that would have made her early fans proud but it’s probably too little too late. With her audience getting younger and younger, it’s hard to imagine they even know what Cointelpro is. They might prefer her growling “Fuck you for existing in the first place!” as she did in the popular “Untouchable Face.”
It might seem unfair to suggest that DiFranco is a better songwriter when she’s pissed off, but it might just be that she no longer needs to purge her feelings through songwriting now that she has a husband to confide in. On “Sick of Me,” she grapples with growing older and mellower: “I took to the stage/With my outrage/In the bad old days…But the songs/They come out more slowly/Now that I’m the bad guy.” “School Night” finds a woman choosing between the two loves in her life, her husband and her career: “What kind of scale/Compares the weight of two beauties…I stand committed to a love that came before you.” Elsewhere, she wrestles with the time that has flown by: “She’s 19 going on 30/Or maybe she’s really 30 now.” There’s a comforting brilliance in knowing that she at least acknowledges the fact that she has changed—personally and musically. At 30, she’s dealing with the world from an older, wiser perspective, a perspective that might be foreign to an audience that pines for the anger of songs like “I’m No Heroine” and “Not a Pretty Girl.”