Ani Difranco – ¿Which Side Are You On?

Ani Difranco is, debatably, the singer-songwriter of this generation. She’s been an icon for women, girls, bisexuals, the poor, immigrants (Though I don’t believe Ani ever immigrated to the States. Her parents did, and she often speaks about it), minorities, feminists and so many other groups it’s hard to really fathom. She’s been one of the most unashamedly political musicians in recent years, leaving a strong impression on the legion of fans she’s accumulated over the years. She never stops writing music, and though her influences and style varies, she’s never released and album that feels out of place or untrue to herself. On top of that, she’s worked with just about everyone, from Prince to Greg Dulli, and even though it’s been three years since her last release, she shows no sign of slowing down.

¿Which Side Are You On? Is, like the rest of her work, unmistakably Difranco, albeit in a somewhat different key. Her cool, sophisticated vocals, as always, support intelligent lyrics and even more intelligent guitarsmithing with one notable, highly noticeable difference: an extreme lack of angst. ¿Which Side Are You On? is an album where the passion is still there, and Ani still has a lot to say, but without any of the confusion of her previous work. In ¿Which Side Are You On?, Ani no longer seems lost, worried or trying to sort through the maze of her own vocabulary to find the exact terminology for what she’s trying to say. ¿Which Side Are You On? comes to us after Ani has married and had a child and if anything, simply seems happier. Please, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying; in no way do I think this has had any negative affect on her work whatsoever. I would never be the kind of person to say that the music was better when the artist was in more distress, because honestly, that’s a pretty ridiculous (and let’s be honest, selfish) and untrue statement. What I am saying is that ¿Which Side Are You On? does feel different from her previous work.

Take the song “J” for instance, a song Ani explained last Tuesday was about the recent oil spill and it’s negative affect on the city of New Orleans. It’s a song about disappointment and frustration, but at the same time, it isn’t frustrated itself. In fact, it’s a more calm-sounding song with a great deal of Reggae-sounding sensibilities. Ani understands now that a song doesn’t have to be angry to make a point, nor does it have to be imposing to get it across. It’s a song I didn’t really like upon initial listening. I’m embarrassed to say that I may have heard the initial few bouncing seconds of the song and written it off as fluff. It took nothing less than a live performance for me to re-evaluate my take on the song, and now I feel it’s one of the stand-out songs on the record.

¿Which Side Are You On? is an album that, while dealing with topics close to Ani’s heart, doesn’t really get caught up in itself, and in many instances feels quite restrained. I hesitate to say it – at this point it feels like a dirty word – but it comes across as an album that’s really very mature. The only exception to this is the penultimate song, “Amendment”, which, if I’m honest, almost seems there mainly to appease fans wanting more politics, and more annoyance at it. “Amendment” discusses the many inequalities that women still face today, while at the same time criticizing the pro-life stance. It’s a long droning song, which I feel does nothing but undermine whatever points Ani is trying to make. Assholes on the internet who don’t actually understand anything have made “feminism” a dirty word in recent years, and while I understand the tone of the song is meant to reflect one of irritability, and in a sense it really is meant to be unpleasant, I feel “Amendment” would be a song that would only reinforce their incorrect, smelly opinions of what feminism actually is.

¿Which Side Are You On? does also contain songs which are more overtly personal and, dare I say, really quite sweet. I never fail to smile at the end of “Hearse” when Ani charmingly sings, “I will follow you into the next life like a dog chasing a hearse,” or for that matter, the entirety of the good-willed “Mariachi”. The songs are more light-hearted, but at the same time never feel insubstantial. On another Difranco album they may have seemed like they were missing a clear sense of place, but on the (relatively speaking) laid-back ¿Which Side Are You On?, they make perfect sense. ¿Which Side Are You On? definitely has a distinct sound compared to Ani’s previous work, but the album has just enough variety in its tracks to keep it interesting from start to finish. However, in the grand scheme of Ani’s discography, ¿Which Side Are You On? takes the place of a competent release rather than an evolution of shining example of her style. There are few songs on the album I would say leave a strong lasting impression, and while no song on the album feels lazy per se, very few stand out as memorable. The slow burn and eventually cacophony of excited, eager bells, drums and theremin in “Splinter” makes it seem like a joy to see live (if Ani were accompanied by a band), and the odd, detached chorus of “Unworry” makes the song that much cooler.

The thing is, I wouldn’t call ¿Which Side Are You On? stale or uninspired. It’s an album that really makes sense to make at the point Ani is in her life – happy and, for the most part, calm. I’m not worried about the future of the artist, or if she’s making a permanent change to her style. Honestly, I have enough faith in Ani not to worry, and enough respect to trust she knows what she’s doing. ¿Which Side Are You On? is far from Difranco’s best work, but like the rest of her work it provides enough insight into her personality to remain interesting and endearing. As with all her work, ¿Which Side Are You On? has left me happily looking forward to her next release.


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