Album Review: Ani DiFranco – Unprededented Sh!t

[Righteous Babe; 2024]

There’s humor in the fact that Ani DiFranco named her newest album Unprecedented Sh!t. Exclamation point notwithstanding, it couldn’t be a better title for this specific artist releasing this specific album. Like much of her work over the past 34 years, the iconic singer and songwriter is writing here about various woes and concerns about society, politics, identity, justice, and how we relate to ourselves and others. But she’s writing amidst a time of, yes, truly unprecedented shit. 

But this album — her 21st, which is a feat unto itself — also finds the legendary folk singer in quite a new musical territory. (Incidentally: she also just recently made her Broadway debut in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown as Persephone, a role she sang for on the original studio album over a decade ago.) For the first time since 2006’s beautiful (and hugely underrated) Reprieve — which saw DiFranco dabbling in more electronic and sample-based textures, with found sounds and interstitial soundscapes — she sounds sonically invigorated, daring, and ready to toy with her sound. This is due largely, no doubt, to the fact that she worked closely on this record alongside producer BJ Burton, most famously known as of late for some of the jagged sounds of albums like Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, as well as producing the last three Low albums.

Burton works with big pop stars, too (like Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys, for example), but he seems like a good go-to for when artists want to screw with the basic building blocks of their style. Low saw great fortune with his in particular, with Double Negative and HEY WHAT being a double dose of serrated, haunted music, the sound of a band deep into their career redefining what they are capable of. DiFranco dives into this same ethos on Unprecedented Sh!t, and does so with surprising gusto. 

After the brief opening track, “Spinning Room”, which subsists on gently pulsing keys and guitar, we get the bristling “Virus”, with its hectic, claustrophobic distortion and beats. It’s not a sound we’ve ever really heard DiFranco on, and that alone is exciting. They’re both anchored, of course, by her gorgeous voice, which has aged into a thick, humid instrument, bronze and deeply emotive, her vibrato just a touch slower and more dramatic than in her early years. Nearly every syllable from her on this album sounds potent and weighty, like it’s carrying a thousand hidden things on its back. 

Later, we get early single “Baby Roe”, which is like an acidic, warped meshing of a folk song and an EDM song, as shot through DiFranco’s specific ear. The title track is harsh and brash, as she sings about protecting her heart from bleeding, seeming to assume the perspective of someone who isn’t willing to empathize with those who are hurting. “I don’t wanna hear about it when the coldness reaches your bones / I’m just thinking about that drink I’m gonna crack when I get back home” she sings with cool detachment, in an interesting spin on her usual formula. And “You Forgot to Speak” is swimming in reverb’d electric guitars, ultimately tearing open when DiFranco belts, “How the hell can anybody listen / When you forget to speak”.

The unpredictable and sometimes quite experimental (especially for an Ani DiFranco record) sound and production is exciting and magnetic, and her voice sounds surprisingly smooth and powerful over it. It’s also a rather brilliant showing for Burton, who constructed almost all the sounds and music on this record with DiFranco out of just her voice and her guitar (aside from a very small handful of guests, mostly playing drums or electric piano). Whether she plucked, strummed, hit it, or what, is sometimes beyond recognition. But it keeps you guessing, and the textural quality of much of what’s here makes for some of the most intriguing music of her career, even if it doesn’t always land perfectly.

There are some classic DiFranco moments here to temper the proceedings. “More or Less Free” (which includes a verse by natedogg916) is an acoustic number about freedom and injustice, and how at the end of the day we’re all only human. “The Knowing” is a lovely closer, with DiFranco exploring our interiority, listing all the various things that make her her — her hair color, her beliefs, her skills — but understanding that that’s not all of her, and that there’s always more underneath. Its message is, somewhat strangely, very similar to and yet kind of at odds with that of “The Thing at Hand”, which has a great sound and melody, but is kind of undone by its boomer-adjacent lyrics (“I’m not black or white or gray / I’m not he or she or they / I’m not gay or bi or straight / I’m just me”). The message is well-intentioned, but it is a little groan-inducing, and a little less incisive from a writer who, historically, has been able to cut through with bitter truths and astute human observations. 

On “New Bible”, DiFranco perfectly blends the voices of her older work with Burton’s touch. A bluesy, stringy guitar lick cycles on constantly (and do note that, despite all the soundplay at work, her straight guitar playing sounds just as deft and intricate as ever on this album) as she sings in a husky lower end about a litany of societal woes. When she sings, with caustic irony, “One for all and all for one for all”, she follows it with a deflated “boom, chicka boom boom boom,” the enervated faux-jingoism mirrored by some deep bassy thuds. The song is probably the best argument for DiFranco’s work with Burton. It falls in between the bright and brittle songs, as well as the more straightforward acoustic ones, and finds a stunning middle ground where her later-career soulfulness can mix with her classic commentary and future stylistic flair. 

If this is an avenue DiFranco wishes to explore on further albums, it will be welcome, but if not, at least we got to see one of modern folk music’s most revered voices trying something new and more or less nailing it. Unprecedented Sh!t might not be her best album — it is a little short, some of the songs feel a bit undercooked, and occasionally her lyrics tiptoe over the line of poetic observation into eye-rolling territory — but it is her best and most genuinely surprising since Reprieve, as her last few albums have been pleasant but not exactly groundbreaking. But when an artist can so thoroughly show a new side of themselves this far into their career, that’s worth celebrating.