Even as one marveled at Ani DiFranco's wide-ranging looks at social and sexual politics on her earlier albums, one yearned for her to apply all her force to a single topic. That's what the gifted, punk-spirited, folk-based singer-songwriter does here on her eighth album.
"Dilate" chronicles a tempestuous love affair with a married man--and the story's not pretty, as such song titles as "Shameless" and "Done Wrong" suggest.
Where DiFranco's earlier songs often contained a distance from the subject that cast her in the role of an observer, there is no question here that she is a participant.
In "Adam and Eve," she draws on the biblical story of temptation to express the way she was fully aware of all the pitfalls ahead:
I did not design this game,
I did not name the stakes.
I just happen to like apples,
And I'm not afraid of snakes.
Rather than take the usual pop approach of trying to make her own experiences universal, DiFranco concentrates on telling her story--even risking being a bit too insular in places.
But "Dilate" isn't simply a matter of fearless words. The music itself carries its own power and passion, as DiFranco--playing most of the instruments--frames the songs with daring, usually extreme arrangements that mix a variety of influences--from hip-hop to a touch of the exotic mystery of Daniel Lanois and the raw emotion of PJ Harvey.
A highlight, sonically, is a version of "Amazing Grace" that transforms the comforting old hymn into a work of '90s urgency and desperation. Like it, "Dilate" is a bold and exciting step.
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