Free of major-label interference for her entire twenty-seven-year career, Ani Difranco is one of the most revered independent artists on the planet. After all, she pretty much invented the idea of subverting the music industry’s normal route to success, inspiring countless other coffee house singer-songwriters to follow her DIY example and to never, ever, ever sell out. Her fierce independence is part of her appeal, along with her sharp lyrical wit and flair for balancing the political with the personal in her prolific output of spikey guitar-driven songs. She may not be the ball of unstoppable feisty energy that she used to be but Binary sees her unafraid as ever to tell it like it is and stick it to the man.
DiFranco’s trademark acoustic guitar playing takes a bit of a backseat on Binary; it’s there of course but the arrangements and bold mix - courtesy of Tchad Blake - allow the other textures (brass, strings, drums) to take more of a role in defining the songs. Opener and title track is the unlikely marriage of the philosophical and the funky, with great chunks of Hammond organ punctuating noodling saxophone and vocal weirdness. The world-weary ‘Pacifist’s Lament’ that follows starts small and intimate but ultimately gets all epic with horns and sweeping strings. It’s the quintessential Ani DiFranco protest song, subtly paralleling the insanity of world leaders with both warring couples and stroppy toddlers. Its anti-war argument appears so obvious as to be unassailable and is made all the more powerful for being softly said.
‘Zizzing’ is more experimental with plenty of odd clanks and buzzes and is elevated by Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) contributing his unmistakable ethereal vocals to the track. Next up is the shambling New-Orleans-flavoured ‘Play God’, which sees Ani thumping the tub for women’s reproductive rights: “You don’t get to play God, man… I do”. It is essentially all the passages you ever highlighted from the Ani Difranco textbook: the perfect balance of wit and wisdom; a groove so deep you’ll never get out; a smattering of Righteous Babe mythology and a chorus that will stalk you to the end of your days.
‘Alrighty’ is moody, noodly and meandering (all DiFranco fans know that a certain amount of meandering is par for the course) and segues nicely into ‘Telepathic’ which is kookily jazzy and sees Ani’s trademark guitar playing back at the centre of things. I think ‘Even More’ that follows is the album’s hidden gem; it harbours another indelible chorus and is blessed with a particularly funky and feel-good horn section. ‘Spider’ is far and away the rockiest thing I’ve ever heard from Ani DiFranco, with unusually upfront clattering drums and (horror of horrors!) electric guitars pumping away against the backdrop of the stream-of-consciousness lyrics. ‘Sasquatch’ is just plain weird (which is always better than being just plain) and the overtly political ‘Terrifying Sight’ is a song that is frankly bipolar in that it opens and closes as a rallying cry of a rock anthem but has a gooey, trippy, reggae middle in a totally different tempo. A very odd sandwich indeed. ‘Deferred Gratification’ closes proceedings with guitar, soft blown brass and fiddle; it’s comfortingly folky and lyrically wistful (yep, Ani DiFranco is old enough for that stuff now) and, living up to its title, is arguably the strongest song Binary has to offer.
You might think this (along with her last few releases) paints a picture of an artist who is these days more resigned than enraged but I would hesitate to make that assumption. It’s worth bearing in mind that this set of songs was written and recorded before a certain man became the U.S. president and I know Ani DiFranco will have some things to say about that in song in the very near future - I imagine that the word ‘enraged’ will barely be adequate in describing them. However, you could certainly describe the past decade of DiFranco’s output as mature and, in that, Binary is no exception. Mature is a tricky word when applied to someone who, at the age of 19, clearly had more good sense than most but there is a certain musical maturity emerging for sure. It’s most apparent in her voice which sounds increasingly weathered and ragged (in a surprisingly good way) but it’s also there in the attitude too. Lyrically there’s more wisdom, more experience and more clarity, as impossible as that may seem. Musically she’s still a bit out there of course but is so often so brilliant that the meandering is always forgiven.
There was a time when Ani DiFranco would make you dance and laugh and cry because she was always so right about everything. The most remarkable thing about an album like Binary is that she still does all of those things, twenty albums later and has never let up. She’s still right about everything but, even after all this time, she isn’t at all jaded or ready to give in. You get the sense that none of the past three decades has had anything to do with a career - her music and activism is simply her life. She is here to keep telling us over and over again how things are and to keep sticking it to the man for as long as it takes. And it’s going to take a while, she’ll tell you. Thank goodness she never sold out and as a result she’s still (sort of) our little secret. So, please don’t tell anyone just how good this record is.
Review by Rich Barnard.