It’s been fifteen years since Ani DiFranco released her self-titled debut on her own Righteous Babe Records. Since then she has released thirteen studio albums, toured relentlessly, opened for Bob Dylan, earned multiple Grammy nominations and vigorously supported a variety of political and social causes. Meanwhile, she has cultivated Righteous Babe into an exemplar of D.I.Y. success. It would be an understatement to say that by this point, DiFranco has earned the right to slow down.
Of course, anyone who has followed her career knows that slowing down is anathema to her very being. Like a shark that will die unless it keeps swimming, DiFranco’s survival depends on constant self-examination and artistic evolution. But where the desultory stylistic jumps of her last few albums seemed forced, as if they were designed solely to avoid the impression of stagnation, her fourteenth, Knuckle Down, sparkles effortlessly, balancing some of the tightest songs she’s written in years with the most tasteful arrangements she’s ever committed to tape.
Emotionally, Knuckle Down is a harder slog than much of her previous work. Her confession on “Minerva,” “I’ll have more to say when I’m happy/ ’Course, then I’ll have less to sing,” may be aimed at a fickle lover, but it may just as easily be an acknowledgment that the youthful idealism that once fueled her art and politics has faded, replaced by the resignation and numbness that pervades this album. When DiFranco sings “I am out here studying stones/ trying to learn to be less alive/ using all of my will/ to keep very still/ still even on the inside” in the excellent “Studying Stones,” I wonder where the smarmy firebrand of her early albums went. Only “Paradigm” is overtly political, and that song is more reflective than accusatory. The bleakness that suffuses Knuckle Down gets a little suffocating toward the album’s second half, and it doesn’t help that every song is in a minor key.
But even at its most harrowing, Knuckle Down sounds utterly confident, because the songs distil her strengths into concise, sonically compelling packages. In the title track, DiFranco sings “I think I communicate best now, the less I say/ I can’t dance if the band can’t play,” and she seems to have taken that realization to heart. Ani has tamed her vocal mannerisms, reined in her penchant for long-windedness, and surrounded herself with musicians that make these performances breathe and sway organically. Todd Sickafoose’s muscular upright bass complements DiFranco’s percussive guitar-strumming so well that half of the time you don’t even notice there’s no drummer.
Part of the credit for Knuckle Down’s refined sonic landscape is due to co-producer Joe Henry, who emphasizes the “craft” part of DiFranco’s songcraft. The jazzy horn and woodwind charts of 2001’s Revelling/Reckoning and 2003’s Evolve sounded superfluous at times, but every atmospheric guitar swell, violin pluck and vocal harmony on this album sounds like it arose from the song itself, out of sheer necessity. And while on paper it might seem preposterous to use the whistling talents of Andrew Bird to lead into the blunt chorus of “Callous” (“You can’t will yourself happy/ you can’t will your cunt wet”), the effect of his Theremin-like tone is so chilling that your neck hairs will get goose bumps.
When DiFranco sings “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer/ to some imagined bliss/ I gotta knuckle down/ and just be okay with this,” it’s clear that she is finally growing comfortable with exactly where she is. Even if it comes as a painful result of the resignation and detachment that she sings about, acceptance suits her surprisingly well. With Knuckle Down, she has crafted a wholly natural, cohesive album that easily ranks with her best work.