It is always striking how deftly attuned Ani DiFranco is to her own psychology, as well as her ability to write unreservedly with objective accordance and poetic simplicity. Knuckle Down, however, though thematically engrossed with introspection, failed love, attachment to detachment – subjects not unfamiliar to those who know DiFranco’s repertoire – the album only reveals that DiFranco is estranged from herself. Youth, it seems, was the independent and strong-willed Ani DiFranco’s armor when she began her career at age of 16. Since her 2001 release of Revelling/Reckoning, that armor has been coming off in progressively larger pieces, making the despondent nature of Knuckle Down come as no surprise.

For the first time ever, DiFranco shared her responsibilities as producer with Joe Henry. Together, they crafted unconventional melodies and rhythms that oscillate between blues, jazz and folk plaited into time signatures that shift without warning: “Modulation” and “Seeing Eye Dog” are particularly dynamic in this respect. DiFranco’s guitar-playing style on Knuckle Down is significantly less cavalier than on her previous albums like Not A Pretty Girl. In spite of this more subdued tone, DiFranco’s speed, accuracy, unique tunings and eccentric chord progressions remain her forte. Unlike 2004’s Educated Guess, which DiFranco performed/wrote/recorded/mixed alone, Knuckle Down welcomes musicians back into DiFranco’s songs, infusing them with a fuller sound. The album also features more electric guitar work than any previous release in DiFranco’s discography; a somewhat unsettling fact, but it never seems to interfere with DiFranco’s artistry. “Parameters” is Knuckle Down’s most salient track. This selection is a lurid spoken-word piece/poem that elicits anxiety and even slight panic, considering that the story it narrates an autobiographical tale coming home to find an intruder waiting, as DiFranco says, “to deliver one very specific message/ lock your back door, you idiot.”

Musically, the last fourth of Knuckle Down is particularly slow, sad and paired with DiFranco’s classic quips. The track “Minerva,” for example, confesses that “You want me to tell you a story / but I am weary of entertaining / I’ll have more to say when I’m happy / ‘course then I’ll have less to sing.” Though Knuckle Down is not DiFranco’s most uplifting album, the writing is sharp and memorable, and the collaborative production between DiFranco and Henry results in a more well-developed sound, overall. Fear not, dear listeners, that the righteous babe is relinquishing her armor completely. We are nowhere close the bone.
[Jory Dominguez needs three beers to remember now, and five to forget.]