My relationship to Ani DiFranco has changed over the years. I first became a fan back in 2003, after reading about her in the YA novel Hard Love. At that point she had been recording albums for over a decade, so there was a huge back catalog for me to explore. Ani was also extremely prolific, releasing a new album every year without fail. This didn’t always lead to the most polished records, but it was never boring to be an Ani fan.
Then she had the audacity to find a healthy romantic relationship, have a baby, and get married. Okay, my indignation is mostly in jest. If her early albums are any indication, Ani was a tortured soul for many years, and I can’t really begrudge her finding happiness. What does perplex me is the major slowdown in her creative output. I mean, really. Her husband Mike Napolitano is a music producer, and they have recording equipment right in their home. Even being a parent can’t explain the three-and-a-half year gap between Red Letter Year and Which Side Are You On?.
I had only moderate expectations for this album, and I can’t say that they were exceeded. I listened to this interview on NPR Music that helped me put my finger on what bothers me about Which Side. She talks about how the album changed direction over time. It started out as a very personal record and would have been titled Albacore after a song that she wrote as a wedding present for her husband. Then she began to write some seriously politically songs that worked their way onto the record.
And here is exactly my problem with Which Side Are You On?: it feels like two different albums. The understated love songs just don’t mesh with the overwrought political numbers. Ani has written many political songs that I love, but these are too unwieldy, too wordy, and just generally lacking ummph. The only political song with some rabble-rousing potential is the title track, which is really a reworking of someone else’s song.
The truth is, I actually like most of the personal songs. “Mariachi” has been a favorite of mine since I saw the first low-quality video of a live performance on YouTube. “Hearse” is a beautifully simple song about finding love and contentment. “Life Boat” is a look back at herself as a young woman that wouldn’t be out of place on an earlier album. I think I would have liked the album better in its earlier incarnation, as Albacore instead of Which Side. I can hear the extra time taken with the lush arrangements, but production value is not what attracted me to Ani during my teen years.
There is plenty of good music in the world, and I believe that life has room for most of its varieties. So I will enjoy some of these songs when the occasion arises. Others will probably fall by the wayside. If you’re curious about the new tunes, here’s a live performance of “Life Boat.”