DIY diva Ani DiFranco is uncharacteristically reflective in her latest. The challenging punk-folk of last year’s “Knuckle Down” gives way to a dreamy fusion of beat jazz and romantic longing. “Just enough pathos to keep me hypnotized,” she sings on the lead track, and the music never moves far beyond a slow growl.
The title track is a spoken word poem that explores political and emotional dualities. Modern-day Hiroshima is a symbol of this tension, in the beauty of an ancient eucalyptus tree that somehow survived the atomic blast -“terror … in a blinding ray/with the kind of pain it would take cancer so many years just to say.”
Using religious archetypes, DiFranco examines the confusion of post-feminist America, declaring, “to split yourself in two/is just the most radical thing you can do.”
“Reprieve” began in New Orleans and was completed in New York after Hurricane Katrina destroyed DiFranco’s studio. “Millennium Theatre” reflects that disaster in a slow, percolating rage, with the haunting admonishment to “turn off your cell phones/and forget what you think you know.” Aside from “Decree,” it’s the only overtly topical song on a mostly subdued record.
More characteristic is the electonica noodling of “Unrequited,” a song about the ravages of love cloaked in shell-shocked resignation, all the way down to a barely audible sigh at the end.
“I had to leave the house of fashion/go forth naked from its doors,” she sings in “Shroud,” which starts down a well-worn staccato path, but ends up meandering into a psychedelic mist.
DiFranco’s releases over the past few years have veered wildly. “Reprieve” is another example of the public exploration of her muse, designed to win new fans and challenge old ones. When it works, such as in the scorching “Decree” or the kiss-off “Half-Assed,” it can be mesmerizing. Much of the record, however, feels as divided as the circumstances it was created in.
(3 out of 5 stars)