NPR logo Review: Ani DiFranco, 'Binary'

Review: Ani DiFranco, 'Binary'

Stream the folk icon's forthcoming album in its entirety

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Ani DiFranco, Binary Courtesy of artist hide caption

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Ani DiFranco records arrive like MoMA retrospectives. Ani on Heartbreak. Ani on Worker's Rights. Ani on Parenthood. Ani in Love. Each release is entirely immersive and seemingly exhaustive, not only because of the propulsive, intensely kinetic sound signature on the prolific singer-songwriter's past work, but because her attention to the subject at hand has been laser-focused. She released her first 10 studio albums in nine years, and toured relentlessly between 1989, when she started her record company Righteous Babe, and 2005, when she took a medically-mandated 9-month hiatus for tendonitis surgery (while still releasing albums in 2004, 2005 and 2006). DiFranco midwifes an idea/feeling to a recorded and released piece of art with breathtaking singularity of purpose. Her sense of urgency is one of her legacies. It has served her and harmed her, as the earnestness and immediacy with which she presents her work to listeners has opened her up to sharp and personal criticisms when one faction doesn't gel with the phase of life DiFranco has chosen to document.

For her 20th studio album, Binary, the MoMA retrospective might be called Ani Exhales. DiFranco's voice has lowered and softened, her guitarwork has slowed down, she puts fewer lyrics in her songs, and her songwriter's skin has gotten thicker. Gone is the 18-year-old girl on the street in Manhattan, raging against "Our father/ who art in a penthouse." Now she's a woman at sea level, New Orleans in her blood, with a long view in every direction and a hard-won instinct for self-preservation.

Where she used to favor immersion, DiFranco here favors integration. Binary isn't about one thing, or two things, or even three things. It's about everything. Being in love, after a well-documented and tumultuous romantic past, is here ("Even More"). Feminism, DiFranco's bread and butter, is here ("Binary," "Play God," "Alrighty"). Her politics are in place and recognizable ("Sasquatch," "Deferred Gratification," "Pacifist's Lament"), though they're now painted in broader brush strokes. The artist's ability to sing words that would sound bulky and ridiculous from many other mouths persists and impresses, too – she gets the word "placenta" in at one point during "Even More" and somehow manages to make it sound sweet.

And there are some songs, like the experimental "Spider" and the enigmatic "Zizzing," featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, that are less missives from Ani The Comrade, and more about an artist in her fourth decade of playing music trying to surprise herself and make new sounds. It's an unprecedented mélange. Binary might not be the record that specifically speaks to you in your next heartbreak or your first year of parenting, but it could be the record that wakes you up to the world. From a musician at home in revolution, here is an album about the quiet insurgence of maturity.

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Album
Binary
Artist
Ani DiFranco
Label
Righteous Babe Records
Released
2017

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