Evolution as a metaphor for personal growth teeters by definition on the edge of melodrama, but folk rocker Ani DiFranco pulls it back to solid ground like a pro. The latest album in DiFranco’s 13-year career, Evolve is as passionate and poignant as any she has released to date.
Backed by urgent guitars, declarative trumpets, plinkety pianos and a mellow medley of woodwinds, DiFranco tackles an array of topics ranging from politics (“Yes, the goons have gone global”) to longing (“Pavlov hits me with more bad news / Every time I answer the phone”) to popular music (“The music industry mafia is pimping out girl power … from their styrofoam towers / And hip-hop is tied up in the back room / With a logo stuffed in its mouth”) to self-realization (“I walk in stride with people much taller than me / And partly it’s the boots but / Mostly it’s my chi”).
From the twangy title track and the melody-driven “Here for Now” to the quiet and meandering “Serpentine” – a 10-and-a-half-minute dictum on all that is wrong with the world – Evolve has its ups and downs. It begins with a sigh – “Promised Land” is deep and jazzy, but lyrically unimpressive compared to the other tracks – and ends with the melancholic, enduring croon of “Welcome To:.” DiFranco’s inner editor/producer serves her well here; though a couple of these songs may not speak immediately to every listener (here’s looking at “Phase”), they do convey a strong sense of belonging exactly where they are in the grand scheme of the album, inducing the urge to resist pressing the skip button at least until the second chorus is done.
One need not be a devout DiFranco follower to enjoy this incarnation of her voice. Minus the aforementioned rare duds, Evolve is brutally candid and refreshingly accessible to the average listener. Concrete images of dreaded high school locker rooms and abstract notions of “questions milling around” give Evolve its multi-layered appeal.
While Evolve’s tracks would be dynamic and interesting without any lyrics attached to them, what makes DiFranco’s music truly compelling is the artist’s ability to combine social commentary so seamlessly with musings on personal relationships, her mastery of metaphor and her keen artistic eye. The resulting album is simultaneously enthusiastic and dejected, cynical and hopeful, reflective and critical. It has, to steal a phrase from DiFranco, “the kind of beauty that moves.”
3 1/2 Stars