Without a doubt, Ani DiFranco is among my favorite songwriters. At her best, she can express complex ideas with a powerfully simple, understated wit that can make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. Relentlessly self-aware, her sense of humor lets her mock herself in a way that's instantly relatable, totally endearing, and without the slightest hint of self-pity. ¿Which Side Are You On? features precious little of any of the above. The cynical assertion would be to say that she doesn't know how to write anymore. Another thought, which I've seen her seem to express in some interviews, is that this is just a conscious stylistic shift toward more simplistic writing. I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume it's the latter, and that's fine, but I don't think that makes it unfair to point out that a lot of the lyrics on this album are straight up cringeworthy.
Merely stating things your fanbase is likely to applaud does not good songwriting make. "If Yr Not" is the perfect example of this. The first line of the song is, "if you're not getting happier as you get older... you're f***in' up." Okay, I get it; yes, I agree with you... but when you just say it flat out like that, it's not interesting songwriting. The "old" Ani would have taken that as the root idea, then found novel and clever ways to express it. A successful song that expresses the same idea as "If Yr Not" is "Back Back Back" from To the Teeth. The song "Amendment," in which Ani makes the tongue-in-cheek case for a constitutional amendment "to give civil rights to women," is one of my favorites from the album, though the humor and delivery of the lyrics are best when they're getting a reaction from a live audience. A performance element also makes the clumsy ending a little more tolerable.
It might look like I'm nitpicking awkward lines and ignoring the album's broader strengths - which it does have, but I have some final smack to talk before we get there. Let's talk about "Albacore." Ani has always had a tendency to dip into clichés, but traditionally those moments have been more aesthetic (like the way she delivers a lot of her spoken word pieces). That tendency has finally bled over into her actual writing. Gone is the sense of irony she had in "Superhero," which was about how even the most independent and self-aware of us become pathetic, blubbering clichés when we fall in love. Now she's fallen in love and sounds very much like a pathetic, blubbering cliché in songs like "Albacore."
Fans of her feminist sensibilities will be drawn to "Promiscuity," in which Ani criticizes the idea of commitment for the sake of commitment. Some gems of her argument: "Promiscuity is research and development..." - "How you gonna know what you need, what you like, `til you been around the block a few times...?"
Despite much of it being littered with awkward writing, ¿Which Side Are You On? still provides a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience, for non-lyrical reasons. From Ani's guitar, to the newfound affection that's just everpresent in her voice, to the killer contributions from New Orleans acts such as The Neville Brothers, Bonerama, and The Rebirth Brass Band. Righteous Babe's own Anaïs Mitchell also makes a guest appearance, providing backing vocals on the song "J." Although ¿Which Side Are You On? is easily one of Ani's weakest efforts as a writer, it's not without its charm. Ani's decided to take a different direction as an artist, and DiFranco fans would do well to take the new music for what it is. She's got handfuls of albums full of brilliant songwriting and awesome quotables; she's now dialing it back and making music that reflects where she is in life - it's calmer, more loving, made to satisfy the ears and the heart more than the mind. While I miss "the old" Ani, albums like this imbue her catalog with a kind of diversity that makes her my favorite to listen to in a variety of contexts.
The only song on the album I find absolutely irredeemable is "If Yr Not." Some others ("Amendment," "Hearse") are generally enjoyable, with some awkward writing that distracts from otherwise decent songs. "Life Boat," "Promiscuity" and "Mariachi" are some of its high points, with "Life Boat" being my favorite on the album. "J" is great for purely musical reasons, and for all the grief I give "Albacore," it's totally heartwarming.
For DiFranco fans, it's certainly worth its share of spins. Actually, that's also true for non-fans. Put it on in the background while you're cooking or during a relaxing day around the house. It's a nice album to chill to. Ani DiFranco is happy now, and it's kind of infectious.