"Life knocked me off my platform," admits Ani DiFranco on Educated Guess. It is a surprising confession from the hitherto unflappable righteous babe, indeed. But don't let the momentary loss of footing fool you: Ms. DiFranco is still on solid ground.
Educated Guess, a stripped-down, unsentimental hard-eyed look inward (inspired by the collapse of her much-discussed marriage), is a gem. At once vulnerable and resolute, heart-breaking and reinforcing, it's the artist's triumphant return to form and, not coincidentally, her best work in recent years.
Recorded on vintage reel-to-reel equipment in self-described "shotgun shacks" both in New Orleans and her native Buffalo, DiFranco trades in the dizzying, multi-layered compositions that characterized 2002's Reveling and Reckoning and even last year's Evolved for a more gritty Ani-like approach, tangling together stark, steely guitars with caustic, confessional lyrics.
On "Swim," a staccato, right-is-right opprobrium that harkens 1992's Not a Pretty Girl, DiFranco distances herself from any trace of co-dependency, singing, "I let you drown me / out with your din / and then I learned how to swim." Likewise, "Origami" looks at personal emancipation as a feminist right of passage, albeit a difficult one. "I know men are delicate / origami creatures / who need women to unfold them / hold them when they cry," she sings, before lashing out, "But, I am tired of being your savior / And I am tired of telling you why" over growling, tense guitars.
Still, DiFranco has her moments of vulnerability -- most notably in "Bodily," a frank exploration of her own short-comings. "You had me jumpin' through those hoops for you / Still, I think I'd stoop for you / Stoop for your eyes alone," she laments. Not even Ani says breaking up is easy. But, even in her most humbling moments of vulnerability, DiFranco manages to walk between the scattered pieces of her life and find a compelling, thorough artistic vision to wrap herself in before carrying forth, leaving the rest of us to marvel at the well-worn ground beneath her feet.
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