Educated Guess


I've seen two movies (The Triplets of Belleville and Rabbit-Proof Fence) since I last wrote a review, but I'm going to sidebar those for now in order to review Ani DiFranco's new CD, Educated Guess.

To begin with, I have to cop to my history with Ani. I'm one of those uber-fans. I've been listening to her since Out of Range was her new record, which means I'm a fan of (gulp) ten years. I expect a lot from her. She's been the #1 artist on my soundtrack for a long, long time now. And like a lot of her long-term fans, I've been pretty disappointed by some of her recent releases and her shows. I have no idea if the creature Ani sings about is herself, or if the story she weaves is her own, but I've always just assumed it is, and therefore been more than willing to grow with her and accept her expansions (and, in my view contractions) as part of that process. When her politics dimmed in favor of her broken and breaking heart in Dilate, I was right there with her. Even when she insisting on spending numerous albums recording with a band (folk travesty!), I was patient. I didn't fault her for getting married, I like all her phases.

But I think she may have lost me on this one. It's not the music--this album is back to just her, although it's a weird analog recording and some experimental mixing, rather than just her and her guitar. It's the utter lack of hope on the album. Even when she was wallowing in misery on Dilate, I always felt there was humor, hope, love behind the bitterness. And frankly, Educated Guess is just bitter.

I understand that this may just be another one of her turns--the marriage thing didn't work out, either for Ani herself or for the character Ani sings about, she gave herself wholly and now she's disappointed. I can see that. And maybe her hope will be back on later albums--I hope so, and I'll keep trying. But as for this one, I dunno.

The album begins with a short poem, Platforms,as follows:

life knocked me off my platforms
so i pulled out my first pair of boots
bought on the street at astor place
before new york was run by suits
and i suited up for the long walk
back to myself
closer to the ground now
with sorrow
and stealth

The poem sets the tone for the rest of the album, much of which is centered around needing to be alone, reconnect with herself, etc. In the second track, Swim, she sings, "i let you surround me/i let you drown me/out with your din/and then i learned how to swim." Similarly, the 7th track, Bodily, says "you broke me bodily/the heart ain't the half of it/and i'll never learn to laugh at it/in my good natured way/in fact i'm laughing less in general/but i learned a lot at my own funeral/and i knew you'd be the death of me/so i guess that's the price i pay." The trouble is that the way the songs are recorded, the way her voice sounds, the "I'll never learn to laugh at it" seems a lot truer than the "I learned a lot at my own funeral." It's easier to believe Ani is miserable, and harder to believe that she is learning.

Unsurprisingly, the political tracks are the album's strong points. Back to back on the record,Animal and Grand Canyon show the only sparks I can find of the old Ani. In Animal, she bemoans the imperialism, consumerism and "willful ignorance" of Americans, singing, "and there's this brutal imperial power/that my passport says i represent/but it will never represent where my heart lives/only vaguely where it went." Grand Canyon, however, is the real gem, starting out, "i love my country/by which i mean/i am indebted joyfully/to all the people throughout its history/who have fought the government to make right." She goes on to speak specifically about feminism, both acknowledging the work we have left to do and giving a much-deserved nod of respect to those who came before us, which of course warms my heart:

people, we are standing at ground zero
of the feminist revolution
yeah, it was an inside job
stoic and sly
one we're supposed to forget
and downplay and deny
but i think the time is nothing
if not nigh
to let the truth out
coolest f-word ever deserves a fucking shout!
i mean
why can't all decent men and women
call themselves feminists?
out of respect
for those who fought for this
i mean, look around
we have this

The album version of Grand Canyon doesn't warm my heart quite the way the song did when I saw her live last, when she raised her hands and looked around at an audience full of women, saying with wonder, "we have...this." The album track does a good job at bringing back the memory of that particular moment, though, so it's pretty damn good.

Aside from the usual politics and the bitterness and hopelessness I mentioned, the other common thread I see throughout the album is a sense of worldly exasperation with the weaker sex. In Origami, she sings, "i know men are delicate/origami creatures/who need women to unfold them/hold them when they cry/but i am tired of being your savior/and i am tired of telling you why." I was reminded immediately of Ani's much older work (Make Them Apologize, Fixing Her Hair) when I heard that, and it made me happy. It also made me sad, though--she's spent so long trying to make men into what she wants them to be, no wonder she's tired.

The albums final track, Bubble, she hints at another kind of relationship, writing, "i want you to always remember for me/baby, if you can/how much you hated the woman/who made you a man/and remember for me won't you/back further before that/how you loved her like a boy/cried from the joy/when you weren't laughing." If for no other reason, I'll buy her next album to see where that goes.

All in all, this album wasn't any more or any less disappointing than the last few--it has a few bright spots and a lot of darkness. However, I can't write my disappointment in this one off to the music, because all of the musicians are gone. This is raw Ani, all by herself, and I never thought that would be something I'd be disappointed in.

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April 2012

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