Friday, August 09, 2002
Christgau on The Magnetic Fields:

"Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes- not only does it go without saying, it's what he's selling. I say if he'd lived all 69 songs himself he'd be dead already, and the only reality I'm sure they attest to is that he's very much alive."

Christgau on Ani DiFranco:

"This is linguistic craft as a means to character--DiFranco's character. Pointing out that "When Doves Cry" (a formerly ritual show-closer that kicked out the jams at Roseland) is DiFranco's only cover, my otherwise sophisticated panel insisted on autobiographical verisimilitude: all right, maybe "Letter to a John" wasn't true, they didn't think she'd ever lap-danced, but if it came out that, for example, Ani-the-person wasn't really bisexual, it would be like Milli Vanilli or something. And they're right to care. Aesthetes are free to believe she's merely constructed this headstrong, mercurial, sensual, edgy, alert, pissed off, affectionate, waggish, empowered, needy, indomitable, fierce, leftwing, hyperemotional, supercompetent persona. But self-expression goes into it too, and you have to wonder whether she can keep it up."

Some of my thoughts on Ani's Revelling/Reckoning from c. a week ago (crappier bits removed):

With Ani's last two albums, early 99's Up Up Up Up Up Up and To The Teeth from the following Christmas, I resigned myself to the fact that Ani and I were moving away from each other. She was getting into full-band jams, jazz and funk influences and lyrics that veered between solipsistic and Naomi Klein-ish didactic (even for her - perhaps the difference between early period and late period Ani-didacticism is the specificity, the big word-ism. Where before her enemy was the world at large, now it's capitalism, patriarchy, the Bush Administration, the NRL). I was getting into dance music, hip hop and everything else that I've chronicled discovering on this blog. Maybe it was just a natural parting of ways, but it didn't help that she was making what seemed to me to be blatantly unwise choices.

The affectations of her recent albums have seemed exactly that - affectations. An extended funk jam with trumpet blasts here, a filmy atmospheric guitar wash + brittle spoken word session there, all distractions from the core of her craft: the tension between her compositional neatness, her deceptively natural rhyming, and the profound instability of her flamenco-punk guitar flutter, the contradictions within her proud but multifaceted persona. '95-model Ani could groove, but the groove was tightly contained in the tight, elliptical swing of her songs, fleshed out and expanded upon by bass and drums but never fundamentally altered. Already prickly and restless, physically agitated with impatience and urgency, it was the song-structures themselves that grooved, not the departures from them into freeform. So when Ani started departing from the song every second time she picked a note, the enjoyment was not in the departure but in the return, in the way songs would suddenly snap back into focus. It helped to articulate the nature of her talent, but at the price of rendering it more fleeting, more frail. A roleplaying stylistic venture for Ani is a gesture towards anonymity, a liberating but distancing step outside the tight bondage of her persona that inevitably defines her appeal.

Last year's Revelling/Reckoning doesn't do away with these latter-day conceits; if anything it expands upon them, with the deliberate pervasiveness of an attention-grabbing horn section and shadowed snatches of instrumental cul-de-sac ball games. So it's hard to say exactly why this double album works - or, rather, connects - where her recent previous efforts fell short. Most likely it's just that Ani's ability has caught up with her enthusiasm - the lush horn sections which are draped over much of the Revelling half finally sound like more than mere addendums to the arrangements; by leaning on them to help form the songs Ani has given them purpose and character. Likewise the shift from punkish strum to spare atmospherics no longer seems hesitant, and the frequently amelodic twists and turns now sound as unconscious as her nifty way with a melody used to.

The prevailing wisdom with double albums is that they intermingle a great single album with unnecessary and ill-advised addendums. Revelling/Reckoning is by no means a consistently gripping affair - it's almost impossible to imagine loving every track here - but contrary to the accepted argument, its expansiveness and its flabiness acts as its lifeblood. Two hours allows Ani the luxury of not needing to economise her divergent impulses, so that while before a twelve-minute jam seemed like a regrettable waste of space where two or three treasurable songs might have resided, now almost any excess can be justified by the knowledge that whatever the listener doesn't want from Ani is balanced by a surfeit of what they do want. So I don't know if it's that the songs here are better than before - though I'm sure at least some of them are - of if I'm merely giving them a better chance to sidle up to my tastes and introduce themselves.

Truthfully, I continue to find Ani's more didactic moments to be increasingly uncomfortable: now that she writes songs about third parties (defending black people, attacking the government) and talks about "watching capitalism gun down democracy", she sounds less like the guitar-wielding agitator of youth and more like a left-wing music teacher playing tapes from Woodstock to an underwhelmed class. It's also when she falls into the trap of thinking that her words can carry her and stops thinking about how to deliver them; the fact that she's a frequently excellent lyricist is no excuse for such a foolish assumption. But she can still summon up moments of touching conviction, when she can introduce herself back into her stories through her performance, like when the tired catch in her voice undermines the faux-idealism of "Subdivision", or when you hear her age decades on the dustbowl folk of "Old Old Song" - "it's a story as common as a penny, son" she mutters, bent and grey with wearied disappointment, like an out-of-step firebrand left writing angry missives to an unreceptive local newspaper.

But Ani's better off when she's addressing her songs to a single subject, tailoring her thoughts to ingratiate themselves into a specific mind. These are her love songs, even when she's not singing about love - they're love songs regardless. What's precious about Ani in love song mode is her restlessness with the form; she has to approach it from as many different angles as possible, shifting between the guilt of adultery and the flush of a first crush and quiet desperation of a spinster with a thoughtful studiedness that - along with this project's enormity - oddly puts me in mind of Stephin Merrit. Hence the Christgau quotes above. But if Robert is right, if Ani and Stephin form opposite poles of songwriting (music as praxis vs clinical devotion to form) then surely this resemblance must be misguided. To have a persona as strong as Ani's is to disallow the chance of multiple perspectives, because no one person can be as varied as a songbook can be - right?

I'm not certain, but assuming that is correct, then perhaps we can distinguish Ani by saying it is her gift for metaphor that allows to constantly spin out an otherwise unified persona into new and occasionally captivating variations. So while I'm sure that the sentiment of "So What" (a wistful reflection on a guy too fucked up to love/be loved) is hideously familiar, the specific rendition here grabs me: a sighing "who are you now/and who were you then/that you thought somehow/you could just pretend/that you could figure it all out/the mathematics of regret/so it takes two beers to remember now/and five to forget/that I loved you so/yeah, I loved you, so what", with forlorn trumpet and clarinets refrains trailing in her wake, weakened and crippled by regret.

On Revelling/Reckoning this spinning-out becomes a fully pronounced stylistic dilettante approach. Some people I respect actively hate Ani for dipping her toes in different genres, but I reckon she's getting better it, striking closer to the feel of the unfamiliar style rather than merely appropriate its superficial markers. The late-night croon of "Revelling" features nothing more than an acoustic guitar and some snippets of trumpet, but with its strikingly perfect cigarette-dampened thickness of the vocals, sounding almost as muted as the trumpet, it nonetheless points to the ornate jazzy abstraction of Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The album is full of moments like these, moments when Ani steps outside herself while remaining within herself, finding the tension between songwriter and persona and playing it for all it's worth. Her range - folk, jazz, funk, quasi-hip hop found-sound grooves, country and post-rockish instrumentals - isn't as impressive or deliberate as Merrits', but it helps Revelling/Reckoning reach a similar level of multifaceted completeness. An album not just to get lost in, but one that's aware of the possibility of getting lost, and tries to account for it. Like, "Okay, so if you're gonna spend a week listening to just me, I better give you a week's worth of music to listen to."


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