Once singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco broke through to a larger audience with her 1996 album Dilate, her subsequent discs suggested the confusion of an artist who has worked to attain success on her own terms and then has mixed feelings upon that attainment. She departed from her punk-folk style. She added a horn section. Last year, she returned to her roots on Educated Guess, backing her voice with just her acoustic guitar.
Some choices made more sense, artistically, than others. Knuckle Down makes more sense entirely — not because DiFranco calls upon Joe Henry as her first co-producer ever, or because she resumes working with other people (including labelmate Andrew Bird), but because the results of both decisions show how she’s earned maturity.
DiFranco infuses the music with her unusually intense personality, but Knuckle Down tones down the personality quirks. When the delicacy of a song — the syncopated title track, the strings-enhanced ballad “Studying Stones” — encourages restraint, she avoids wrapping her voice around a lyric like Alanis Morrissette’s hipper cousin. When the subject of a song — the immigrant’s-daughter tale of “Paradigm” — demands a political point of view, she universalizes the personal. And when the emotional content of a song — the paranoid insecurity of “Parameters”, or the sadly smiling heartbreak of “Modulation” — needs caution, she sublimates her neuroses and self-consciousness.
Mostly, DiFranco allows the songs to be what they must be, and herself to be what she must be: respectively, music about trying to understand life, and an artist trying to age gracefully. If the music doesn’t entirely succeed in its purpose…well, it can’t. If DiFranco succeeds, and she does, then it’s about time.