Ani DiFranco – Binary
Righteous babe – 9 June 2017
It’s easy to imagine Ani DiFranco flourishing in the current political climate. One of the original acoustic riot girls, she is stripping her senses down to their roots with Binary, an album that blossoms from sociocultural debris. Looking to the future like a bystander who has awaited her moment, DiFranco acts as a counterculture pedagogue. Too humble to preach, she instead imbues the work with the spirit of a synergistic uprising, using music to start conversations in the streets with anyone who will listen.
Distinct from many of her more introspective works, Binary is an ode in praise of people standing together for a common cause. The title track is also the first track of the album, and it blazes forth, declaring “Consciousness is binary.” DiFranco is back, and she wants us to come along to work together and “complete the circuit.” A multidimensional voice cries “Where are my sisters, where are my brothers?” to those willing to join with Binary espousing an informed yet defiant platform upon which they might stand.
Ani DiFranco has always been original, and it’s easy to look towards an artist like her with assuredness that the protest song genre will never die. But far from Guthrie, Seeger, and her activist predecessors whose more straightforward verse heralded the Union chants of the day, she consistently proves her ability to craft deeper and more intricate prose. A balance of anthems and poems, Binary delivers the complementary music and lyrics that we have come to expect from her. In “Zizzing” she combines ambient guitar with atmospheric vocals to call a brooding protagonist forth from the twilight: “Laughter spilling on laughter, muscle pulling on bone, the sorcery of stilettos spilling on cobblestone.” Words so vibrant might revive the “break-up song” genre. But DiFranco is not afraid to speak more optimistically about domestic life, either. In “Deferred Gratification” she imagines leaving the Earth in the hands of her children, who earlier on the album (“A Pacifist’s Lament”) are taught a simple life lesson that might change the world: “There is nothing harder than to stop in the middle of a battle and say you’re sorry.”
“Play God” is the jewel of Binary. It embodies the “righteous babe” identity for which DiFranco has become known, and which serves her well in the changing world. DiFranco sings the song of the mother-feminist, the genre-cracking demagogue breaking the Madonna/whore mould. In “Play God” she calls for every woman to embrace the activist identity. Over the backdrop of a Chicago blues guitar, she sings “I’m my brother’s keeper any chance I can, and I pay my taxes like any working man, and I feel I’ve earned my right to choose. You don’t get to play God, man. I do.” This is the rich amalgamation of DiFranco’s lyricism and activism, bound to ignite a subversive impulse in any listener with an inclination to go against the grain.
Knowledge of DiFranco’s legacy of activism will make you appreciate Binary all the more. In the early 1990s, she was breaking down barriers in record label ownership, cross-genre melding, and protest art. In 2017 she is a voice among many, a pantheon of artist-activists who are more outspoken and more diverse than ever before. Binary is an album born in the grey area between defiance and freedom. It is a means to an end which, if you understand DiFranco’s legacy, is far greater than the sum of its parts. DiFranco gives form to the unfathomable, hand-picking recycled rhythms from her thirty-year career to deliver the best she has to offer to this movement. The quintessential syncopated guitar rhythms, fast fingerpicking, and lush lyrics are vehicles for DiFranco to step out of the counterculture and join a generation of musicians she preceded—many of whom she likely inspired. Binary is different not necessarily because Ani DiFranco has changed, but because the times around her have changed. For her most dedicated fans, this album will prove both gratifying and unifying. For newcomers, Ani DiFranco is at home as an enlightened voice in a collective singalong.