Ani DiFranco: “Which Side Are You On?”

Dylan has said that he doesn’t write protest songs, that he just sets out to tell a story and if there happens to be some kind of political resonance, well, fine. It’s a subtle but critical distinction, and I think it’s what keeps a song like “Masters of War” so perpetually devastating; it took deep root in the Vietnam era, and was still rooted when the Iraq era rolled around. But where, I wonder, does this distinction leave Ani DiFranco?

I don’t know for certain, but my suspicion is that DiFranco would have less hesitation than Dylan does about calling herself a protest songwriter. She owns up to it in the very title of her new album. Which Side Are You On? is also the title of a pro-union anthem written in the 1930’s. Its most famous performer is Pete Seeger, one of the patron saints of protest music, who, now well into his 90’s, shows up here to give DiFranco his blessing. Her version of the song is a modern-day rewrite, fueled by Seeger’s banjo and her lefty political indignation. It’s six-and-a-half minutes long, and within the first two minutes mentions stolen elections, “voting out” corporations, endless war, and “the curse of Reaganomics.” If your politics are the opposite of DiFranco’s the song will hit like a hammer, which I assume is her point. The song packs a wallop despite of, or maybe even because of, its very heavy-handedness; DiFranco and a full stable of guest musicians blow it up into a rousing political anthem, the sheer force of indignation and the want for justice making it potent.

But what has always made DiFranco charming to so many, and perhaps a bit off-putting to some, is the way that she works her politics in almost casually. This album is rife with politics, but not with anthems. Take a song like “J,” for example, a pretty song about getting stoned. The singer sprinkles it with politics, but it’s really just a song about a mellow afternoon on the back porch. This very casualness is befitting for an album that feels brittle and homemade. Though DiFranco is joined by a couple of Neville Brothers and members of Galactic and Rebirth Brass Band, the record is appealingly intimate and low key, like it was tossed off over the course of a couple afternoon sessions at DiFranco’s home studio.

Which Side Are You On? is the first DiFranco album in four years, and the first since her sublime turn on the Anais Mitchell “folk opera” Hadestown, but the album suggests that while the outside world may have changed some, the singer herself really hasn’t. Despite the album’s laid-back vibe, she gets to be pretty cantankerous sometimes, and on “Promiscuity”– a song playfully and perhaps a little cheekily celebrating its title subject– you can’t help but smile at just how comfortable she is in her own skin, with her own outspokenness. You can help but smile when things grind into something more tedious. “Amendment” is a song just as long as the title track, but nowhere near as rousing; her the singer sounds less like a movement leader and more like a crank, proposing amendments for abortion and women’s rights and a whole litany of other stuff. This song, I think, is a lot preachier, and here’s my supporting evidence: Though I happen to share many of the singer’s lefty leanings, even I find the track to be condescending.

But it’s part of the fabric of any Ani DiFranco album, part of what makes Ani Ani– love her or loath her, she really doesn’t give a damn. I should also say that there are some apolitical songs here, including the lovely, warm opener “Lifeboat” and an almost punk-ish salute to hedonism called “If Yr Not,” its party-style spelling tipping off its casual irreverence. It feels like a song that could have been a DiFranco classic at any point in the singer’s career, and it summarizes the charms that make this, if not an essential protest record, at least essential Ani.

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