Although Ani Difranco has been directed away from her usual extensive touring - doctor's orders - and has thus been unable to promote her umpteenth studio album, "Knuckle Down" as heavily as previous releases, that in no way prevents it from being an outstanding achievement, much like the majority of her LPs. Though it does not quite match the sheer, uniform brilliance of its predecessor, 2004's lo-fi "Educated Guess," a triumphant collection of songs that fused the melancholy embers of her recent divorce and current political state of the US, it nevertheless is home to a new host of essential Difranco tunes.
The disc is initiated by the frantic, frothily produced self-exploration of the title track, which Difranco ends by observing, "still that star-struck girl is someone I miss." Then comes lead single "Studying Stones," where she delves as deeply into her personal life, outside of her divorce, as she ever has on record. The song is, simply put, amazing.
"'Course numb is an old hat/Old as my oldest memories/See that one's my mother/And that one's my father/And that one in the hat, that's me/It's a skill I'd hoped to abandon/When I got out on the open road/But any more pent up emotion/And I think I'm gonna explode."
To be sure, she has not finished immersing the subject of her divorce in her music, as the likes of "Seeing Eye Dog," Modulation" and "Manhole" are the furthest thing from subtle, revealing Difranco as the epitome of bitter. All are on the sarcastic side, clearly evident of her newfound sense of freedom and sensible approach to remedying her life's tribulations, while the former tells a story all too accessible to many who have been through similar circumstances.
"I threw myself a little role reversal and followed you home/Just dying to be chewed/The dog was chosen by the bone/Be my seeing eye dog/'Cause I am blind."
She is rather hard on herself in the anthemic "Lag Time," proclaiming with her confidant delivery above hooky guitar chords that she wishes to become far more capable of making sound judgments concerning her relationships with others in her life, and thus "tighten down on the lag time." Further on, in "Parameters" she narrowly talks her way out of getting raped by coaxing an intruder and would-be rapist "off the ledge of a very bad idea."
"New as you are, really, to the idea that/Even after you've long since gotten used to the parameters/They can all change/While you're out one night having a drink with a friend/Some big hand may be turning a big dial/Switching channels on your dreams/Until you find yourself lost in them/And watching your daily life with the sound off."
She also reminisces specifically of the high-maintenance side of her ex-husband in "Callous" and "Minerva," the latter in which she likens herself to the wise, stalwart Roman goddess. The ultimate highlight of the album, however, is "Paradigm," the only track on the disc which finds Difranco dishing up more of her political psyche.
"(I had to) teach myself to see each of us/Through the lens of forgiveness/Like we're stuck with each other (God forbid!)/Teach myself to smile and stop and talk/To a whole other color kid/Teach myself to be new in an instant/Like the truth is accessible at any time/Teach myself it's never really one or the other/There's a paradox in every paradigm."
The album concludes on a high note with "Recoil," where she realizes she has not been held "since I've been his" and that that's "probably all it is" that's made her recoil from her friends in her solitude. She also fondly recalls her father "who time travels mostly now," and ends the song with an invitation.
"To all the people out there tonight/Who are comforting themselves/If you should happen to see my light/You can stop and ring my bell/I'm just sittin' here in this sty/Strewn with half written songs/Taking one breath at a time/Nothin' much going on/Nothin' much going on."
Overall, "Knuckle Down" is a transitional record for Difranco, finding her surfacing between two different phases of her life. Listening to her contemplate her situation and those that surround her is thus all the more absorbing.