¿Which Side Are You On?
52:42 min • Righteous Babe • January 17, 2012
When an album starts with the line,
Every time I open my mouth, I take off my clothes –
you know you’re in for something interesting. And this is exactly how Ani DiFranco opens her new album, Which Side Are You On?, with the track ‘Life Boat’. Ani’s albums are always something special, but as her last few albums haven’t quite matched up to her back catalogue, this album has almost crept up on us unnoticed. I suppose that’s the problem with being a musical maverick – a DiFranco below par album is still better than most artists’. We’ve come to expect so much from the creator of ‘Untouchable Face’ that it can be easy to judge her work unfairly. And I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised by her new material.
Some of it I already knew, as she had debuted it at her Shepherds Bush gig last year. It is strangely comforting when hearing a new album to hear a couple of recognisable songs. In spite of the startling opening line, the first two tracks bob along without making much of a mark. The 2nd track ‘Unworry’ is classic DiFranco with intricate guitars and chopping time signatures, but the album shifts gear with title track “¿Which side are you on?”, a reworking of the Florence Reece song. The military drums which succeed the opening banjo feel like a call to arms (albeit somewhat peaceful). There are rewritten verses here, and Ani’s not calling for change, but for decisions to be made. Decisions like whether this is the world we want to live in – and if it’s not, then by the end of the song we should have some idea what to do. It’s unusual to be so stirred and provoked without being preached at, and just as I’ve been convinced to join her rally to take the world on, we change course again and hurtle into ‘Splinter’, a song I vividly remember hearing from last year’s tour. It’s an alternating bossa nova, folk inspired number with biting lyrics – this is easy listening that makes you think about consumerism, pollution and the government!
Promiscuity is nothing more than travelling,
there’s more than one way… to see the world –
is another bold opening statement from the 6th track, but we’d expect nothing less from a woman who’s biggest hit included the chorus, “Fuck you and your untouchable face”. It’s difficult to discern however if ‘Promiscuity’ is progressive or merely infantile swipe, reducing sex to just another metaphor for travel, but once again Ani’s wit prevails, and it’s impossible not to smile at lines like,
some of us like to stay at home and some of us are Columbus
The following tracks stay in the familiar territory that almost define DiFranco as an artist – from the anti -war/anti-government drawl of ‘J’, to ‘If Yr Not’s resonate proclamation that “if yr not getting happier as you get older, yr fucking up”, a mantra I should write above my bathroom mirror … We get a sense from these declarations that Ani is finally happy in her own skin, and it shows. The album has an underlying theme of accepting and embracing the notion of growing old. ‘If Yr Not’ is a song that should be compulsory daily listening for anyone over 30. This theme continues,
And I will follow you into the next life,
Like a dog chasing after a hearse
from the song ‘Hearse’ is the most interesting romantic-yet-bleak lyric I have heard in what is essentially a love song. With its beautiful soaring production, and themes of wanting to keep the world outside and be alone with the person you love, it’s the lyric that holds it at arms-length from being twee. It’s real and honest, something she does very well. This sense of contentment permeates the more personal parts of the album, and it’s nice to hear her sounding happy.
Ani herself admits she has gone further lyrically on this album than ever before, pushing her own boundaries, asking ‘How big is my mouth? What can I get out of it successfuly?’ and this is certainly true. Some of the over politicised statements feel a little heavy handed. The refrain from ‘Amendment’,
If you don’t like abortions, don’t have an abortion,
and teach your children how best to avoid them –
But don’t treat all women like they’re children
is certain to cause some offense, and I remember it sitting quite uneasily with me when I heard her sing it live for the first time. It’s not that I don’t admire the statement, or its honesty, it’s that parts of the album leave you thinking “is it really that simple?”. Perhaps it is – maybe sex can be compared to travel, and abortions can be referred to as common place – this is after all the society we are in. With the current political and economic climate, it does seem quite apt to be invoking the protest songs and free love statements of the ’60s that played their part in initiating needed change. In America this album will have more punch as a political statement, and it’s a brave one. Whether we are equally provoked by such statements this side of the pond I’m not sure, but personal feelings aside this is a beautifully crafted album, and it’s worth noting that after all these years, and 17 studio albums, Ani still has something to say.
What Side Are You On? is never going to be the soundtrack for polite dinner parties but if you like your folk with political bite, this album is a refreshing change, and if you’re already a fan of Ani this album is a great return to the form that made her special twenty years ago.