Album Reviews: Knuckle Down by Ani DiFrancoCall it sadistic if you must, but music fans often respond best to songs that emerge from the darkest or most turbulent times in an artist’s life. Though indisputably a powerful and positive social force, Ani DiFranco’s best material has always been that which belongs to the realm of the darkly personal rather than political. She has never shied from confessionals, nor from thwarting expectations, but the unfortunate truth is that her last albums -- Educated Guess and Evolve -- merited respect but just weren’t very much fun to listen to. They relied too heavily on a discordant slam-poetess vibe, broken jazz that propped up some of the most forgettable -- and forced -- poetry of her career.
Knuckle Down is a return to both collaboration and confession, and the result is Ani’s most rewarding album in a number of years. DiFranco has brought other musicians and even a rare co-producer, Joe Henry, into the fold. And her songwriting has returned to many of her strengths, allowing for songs that are full of lyrical nuance and free of distracting accoutrements. Death and divorce weigh heavily on the album, creating a spectrum that ranges from brutal detachment (“Callous”) to fragile loneliness (“Recoil”). Even the requisite spoken-word piece (the chilling “Parameters”) lingers longer than usual. There are still a few times when she casts harmony aside and returns to the overly fractured style that typified her two previous releases. Nonetheless, Knuckle Down -- fueled by tumult and again aided by friends -- marks another high point along a long road. - Adam McKibbin
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