Ani DiFranco has never been one to keep her opinions to herself, and—in case it’s not obvious from the title—her latest studio album, ¿Which Side Are You On? continues that trend. The title track turns the Florence Reece labor song popularized by Pete Seeger into a rant about modern government—albeit a bouncy, almost radio-friendly rant that’s peppered with horns and a banjo line courtesy of Seeger himself. The song’s peppy, poppy approach is symbolic of the change DiFranco has made in the last decade of her career.
The singer, who practically coined the phrase “fiercely independent” in the ’90s, made a name for herself by starting her own record label and mouthing off on hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights. The anger subsided with time, though, and on the topics she addresses here, her words just sound hollow. “J” is a weary look at the current state of the world, which falls apart after a contrast between pot and pharmaceutical companies, while a song about the ERA (“Amendment”) never makes a convincing argument. DiFranco attempts another female-empowerment song with “Promiscuity,” but her point is lost under an overwrought explorer metaphor. (“Some of us are Columbus, what can I say.”)
The more interesting moments of ¿Which Side Are You On? come when DiFranco turns the subject to herself, as she muses on aging gracefully (“If Yr Not”) and celebrates love (“Hearse”). It’s a far cry from the venom of her early records, but the problem with DiFranco’s current work is not the fading anger of her youth. Instead, it’s her inability to sound engaged in the current events she sings about.