Canon / Verses
Being an Ani DiFranco fan has been a part of pretty much every feminist’s rite of passage since she came on the scene in the early ‘90s with the release of her self-titled album. Now seventeen years, two DVDs, and nearly thirty albums (including remixes, tributes, and live discs) later, DiFranco has simultaneously released a retrospective double-CD and book of poetry that show just how much she has grown personally, politically, and artistically. Both are an inspiration to all of us as we make our way through our own lifelong journeys.
One thing DiFranco has always been good at is creating songs that resonate deeply with girls and women. We listen to her because we can identify with where she’s been or where she’s at now, and because she gives us a little hope that we, too, can navigate life’s difficulties with the grace that DiFranco writes about in her songs and poems.
Canon is a collection of thirty-six songs that were chosen by DiFranco herself as best works, which, even as a double-disc set, is nowhere near comprehensive considering the multitude of tunes she has to choose from. A bonus for fans is the inclusion of re-imagined and re-recorded versions of old favorites “Napoleon,” “Shameless,” “Your Next Bold Move,” “Both Hands,” and “Overlap.” Inevitably there will be complaints of the omission of this song or that song (indeed, entire albums are absent), but the truth is that new fans and diehards alike can easily and satisfactorily kick back with this sampling. The album shows the breadth not only of DiFranco’s work, but also the influence of musicians she’s played with along the way (e.g., Sara Lee, Andy Stochansky, Julie Wolf, Todd Sickafoose).
Always introspective, DiFranco’s somewhat chronological (though heavily pulling from more recent albums) musical selections reflect the long and difficult road that every woman has to pave for herself. At times the road is fun and easy, but it’s also fraught with challenges that may be anticipated, precipitous, or elusive. This is reflected lyrically, as well as in the shifts in instrumentation, style, and genre.
In recent years, DiFranco has pushed herself as a musician, venturing away from the ‘folk rock’ label that she had been branded with early on in her career, and moving toward a more eclectic blend of ambient, jazz, and blues. Her classic storytelling style is more self-aware and less dogmatic, which indicates that she’s settled into herself – something else I find immensely appealing about this work.
Verses gives an even wider peek into DiFranco’s artistic process. The book features several previously unpublished poetic works and showcases, for the first time, over twenty paintings and drawings - some abstract and others more straightforward. This was a risk on DiFranco’s part, but one that pays off as they compliment the written words that appear alongside them in this collection. The only downside of Verses is the somewhat awkward “conversation” between DiFranco and mentor Sekou Sundiata, a professor of literature at The New School in New York City, which seems to consist of re-configured emails between the two because of its disjointedness and lack of clarity regarding its relevance to the rest of the book. Perhaps this should be revisited in future printings.
I think I better understand now themes in DiFranco's work that eluded me when some of these albums were released: meaningful lessons about the struggle to maintain (and let go of) love relationships, the chore of unlearning inherited family dynamics, the development of personal strength (and forgiving ourselves for our weakness), learning by making a lifetime of mistakes, and the complexity of it all amidst a bitterly polarized and oppressive political world. DiFranco is holding onto personal responsibility in a way that only comes from the wisdom of lived experience, failed idealism, and continuing to pick oneself up after being knocked down again and again. This is certainly a pinnacle point in DiFranco’s career, and what she does next is anyone’s guess. She just wants us to know that she’s not done. We want her to know that we’re not done either.