The evolution of Ani Difranco, as told through 15 years worth of recordings, has laid bare her desires, pains and longings to a legion of fans who are among the most loyal in music. On this, her fourteenth full-length release of new material, the folksinger is recovering from divorce and the loss of her father while on her never-ending path to self-actualization. Ever-changing, Difranco has forged her career on experimentation, with each album sounding different from the last. Beginning her career, at age 18, playing raw folk music that was as punk as folk can get, she has since recorded with Prince, played with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Bob Dylan and been backed on tour by a 5-piece jazz/funk band. Despite the guest appearances by past bandmates, Knuckle Down has stripped away the excesses and gotten back to what her sound is all about: her voice, her words and her highly underrated guitar work.
Opening with the title track and her trademark finger plucking funkiness, the lyrics immediately set the introspective tone of the album: “I think I’m gunnin to get closer/to some imagined bliss/I gotta knuckle down/and just be ok with this.” Trading in optimism for realism seems to be a running theme that clashes with Ani’s instinct to believe that good can conquer evil. It’s an internal battle that plays itself out in the music.
The second song, “Studying Stones,” is one of the best songs in her long, impressive career. It’s beautifully tragic, with violins that seem to weep in response to her words, “‘course numb is an old hat/old as my oldest memories…it’s a skill I’d hoped to abandon/when I got out on the open road/but any more pent up emotion/and I think I’m gonna explode.” It’s a song expanding on the heartbreak and depression begun in early songs (e.g. “You Had Time” and “Dilate”).
Other highlights include “Sunday Morning,” “Modulation,” “Seeing Eye Dog,” and the heartbreaking “Recoil.” In the latter song, she invites comfort from anyone who will offer it: “to all the people out there tonight/who are comforting themselves/if you should happen to see my light/you can stop and ring my bell.”
It is no stretch of words to say that Ani Difranco is the genius songwriter of the post-Bob Dylan 20th/21st Centuries. Many have dismissed her over the years, thinking that the hype can’t possibly be true. Others have picked up the wrong album and found her hard to get into; her last two albums, Educated Guess and Evolve, are not the most accessible starting points for those looking to explore her cannon of songs. For those who have yet to understand the passion of Ani Difranco, Knuckle Down is a good place to try again. She’s stripped bare for all to indulge in.
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