By Eleni P. Austin

“I’m not black or white or grey, I’m not he or she or they, I’m not gay or bi or straight, I’m just me and maybe that’s another thing to say.” That’s Ani DiFranco flouting convention and defying categorization (basically business as usual), on “The Thing At Hand,” a track off her latest album, Unprecedented Shit.

For Ani DiFranco, the political has always been personal. The self-described Lil’ Folksinger began earning her keep as a musician in her teens. As her parents’ marriage was falling apart, she became an emancipated minor at age 15.

By the late ‘80s, she had forsaken her hometown of Buffalo, New York and relocated to New York City. Rather quickly, she was paying her dues and plying her trade in coffee houses, dive bars, Women’s Centers and Folk Festivals. Soon enough, armed with an arsenal of killer songs and her trusty acoustic guitar, she was touring the country, crisscrossing states in her VW Bug.


Her personal style was as experimental as her Post-Punk/Folk sound. An ardent feminist, she initially identified as Bi-sexual. With her shaved head, piercings and tattoos she shook up the status quo, appealing to the queer community, as well as marginalized and disenfranchised youth.

At first, she sold homemade cassettes at her shows. But as demand increased, she went into the studio and recorded a real album. Her self-released, eponymous debut arrived in 1990. As her fan base increased exponentially, major record labels took notice. Ani never wanted to be a cog in a corporate machine. Not only did she resist their overtures, but with the help of mentor and lawyer Scot Fisher, she set up her own label, Righteous Babe Records. In addition to maintaining her independence and autonomy, she reaped financial rewards as well. In the ensuing years, the label grew from a two-person operation to one of the biggest artist-driven labels in the country. Operating out of her Buffalo hometown, RBR signed artists like Andrew Bird, Pieta Brown, Hammel On Trial, Sekou Sundiata, Jennifer Knapp, Drums and Tuba and Anais Mitchell. The facility handles touring, retail and music publishing.

Since 1990, Ani has released 22 studio albums, two live sets and three compilations. Watershed efforts include Out Of Range and Dilate-the latter detailed the fall-out from her affair with a married man. 1998’s Little Plastic Castle offered a biting commentary on her burgeoning fame (after being feted in the pages of Rolling Stone, Curve, Spin, Musician and Ms. naysayers accused her of selling out).

By the dawn of the 21st century, she had tied the knot with the married man, her Reveling/Reckoning record documented the demise of their union. Four years later, she was cautiously celebrating the domestic bliss she’d found with sound engineer Mike Napolitano on her 15th album, Knuckle Down.

For several years, along with Mike and their two children, Ani has made New Orleans’ Bywater District her home. The trailblazer remains fiercely independent. In between her almost non-stop cycle of writing, recording and touring, the last few years have seen a flurry of additional activity. She published her memoir No Walls And The Recurring Dream and a children’s book, The Knowing. Her 2021 album, Revolutionary Love harkened back to epochal albums like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. She recently made her Broadway debut playing Persephone in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, (a role she originated on Anais’ 2010 concept album of the same name). Now she has released her 23rd opus, Unprecedented Shit.

The record opens with blurred and insistent piano chords drilling down on the same couple of notes on “Spinning Room.” Even Ani’s vocals feel wobbly as lyrics detail a creeping sense of malaise: “Feeling depleted, feeling drained, much like the blood was sucked out of my veins.” Swaddled in loops and samples, the monochromatic melody never completely takes flight.

For most of her career, it’s been Ani behind the mixing board, producing her albums herself. For 2005’s Knuckle Down, she trusted musician/producer Joe Henry to help expand her sonic horizons and that gamble paid off. For this record, she leaned on producer BJ Burton, who helmed her favorite Bon Iver effort, 22, A Million. Ani’s voice and guitar became a jumping off point for BJ to craft machine-driven soundscapes to accompany her usual bare-bones attack. The results are mixed.

Take “Baby Roe,” which layers static-y, mechanized and synthetic noises atop her relentlessly percussive guitar style. Keening keys provide a throughline, as Ani’s vocals dart through the mix. She addresses Baby Roe directly, but rather than reflecting on the cataclysmic Supreme Court Dobbs decision, that set women’s reproductive rights back 60 years, lyrics like “I think I might be wrong about all of it, in fact, it’s been proven, keeps coming down to this shitty little interface that we’re usin,’ the very edges of our knowing, is just the tiny tip that’s showing, but we’re so wigged out, yeah we’re so devout, to this waking dream, what’s playing on the screen,” take aim at society’s reliance on technology. By the time she reaches the raucous chorus, it feels like sensory overload.

Then there’s the title-track, which acknowledges the global tailspin we’ve all been flailing through these last few years, as well as Ani’s recent modus operandi shift when it came to recording this album. The song is powered by Steam-Punk guitar, whooshy effects, a dissonant whistle and processed vocals. She’s quick to admit compassion has been supplanted by lethargy as the patriarchy chips away at our ever-diminished freedoms: “I got a lot of heart, I got a lot of will, I got a lot of balls, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have what it takes to get out of bed… I got a lot of heart, but I can’t afford to let it bleed, I can’t afford to empathize, compromise or concede… cuz in this job, I have seen some unprecedented shit.” The song closes out with a volley of bloopy Space Invaders sounds.

The good news is these divergent methods coalesce on two tracks, “Virus” and “New Bible.” The former filters strings, fuzzed-out guitars and vocals through an industrial buzz-saw, but by the second verse more organic sounds emerge tethered to a lilting, Latin groove. Ani’s voice is scrubbed of artifice and her natural insouciance shines through. Wry lyrics find the Lil’ Folksinger sheepishly admitting the pandemic afforded her some much needed downtime: “I was so deeply pleased to pause this life I think I jinxed the world and caused this strife, yes, I longed so long for fewer nouns, I longed so well, the world shut down.”

The latter is the record’s centerpiece. Initially, it’s just Ani and her ukulele as she uncoils a dyspeptic diatribe that attempts to cauterize blood spilt in the name of avarice, arrogance and indifference: “deep in my saddle bags I carry a rage, from the greedy top feeders and they’re invisible cage.” Her mien is conversational and measured as percolating percussion taps out a distress code tattoo. Her message essentially boils down to this: “And for clarity of vision, we need a pulsing polarity of vision, it is our singularity of vision that got us to this place, without equal and opposite forces, we will only know distortion, we will never hit our resonant frequency, we will never find grace.” If we continue to kill the planet, we’ll wind up killing ourselves. The epiphany arrives toward the finish: “I think we should have a new Bible, one that only has two words, I think we should have a new Bible, that just says Mother Earth, and I think men should stand down, when women are giving birth.”

A couple of tracks mine Ani’s signature stripped-down Folk/Punk sound. “More Or Less Free” is pared down to Ani’s open-hearted vocals and strummy guitar as she offers up a cryptic mea culpa. “Boot Of A Soldier” also features just the Lil Folksinger and her guitar. Over plangent acoustic notes, in a sing-songy cadence she ruminates about the origins of her secondhand boots, waxes a bit of nostalgia and manages to work in the term “umwelt.”

The best songs here unspool at the tail-end of the record. On “You Forgot To Speak,” organic and electronic sounds successfully sync-up, creating a compelling aural collage. Ani’s vocals swoop and swoon, bob and weave. Lyrics sketch out a scenario of a character trying to reconcile the duality of her nature: “Between first sleep and second sleep, I stare into the dark, and I can feel there are two of me, so I put ‘em both on the ark, and we’ll find out what we’re made of, when we’re tossing at sea, and no one knows what their fate is, and there are no guarantees.” Her own harmonies stack on the chorus, ushering in some celestial heft.

On the aforementioned “The Thing At Hand” Jazzy uptight bass lines connect with willowy whistle notes and angular guitars. Ani offers thanks to the intangibles that make life living: “Thanks to the pine trees in the tall breeze, thanks to the ocean, thanks to the heartbeat and the spring leaves springing into motion, thanks to the big spinning cosmos and it’s do-si-do, thanks to the emptiness and the energy that teaches me flow,” and she speaks her truth: “I just want to show up for the thing at hand, yes, I’m just trying to show up for the thing at hand/I defy being defined, I am not my body, I am not my mind, you can point right at me, and still, there’s nothing there, and whatever you call me, I don’t care.”

Finally, the album ends on a sweet note with “The Knowing,” a song that’s a companion piece of sorts for the children’s book of the same name that she wrote last year. Vroom-y guitars and sympathetic synths hopscotch the pliant melody. Sung from a child’s perspective, Ani’s demeanor is guileless and innocent, couched in some Seuss-ian wordplay: “I have a name and my name has a story, I have a look, a sound, a smell, a shape, a size, I have a color to my hair, my skin, my eyes…I have beliefs, and someday those beliefs might change, I have blocks that I like to arrange and rearrange, there are things that I’m told and things that I learn, there are skills that I’ve practiced and praise I’ve earned, but this is not all of who I am, underneath this is something more, all of these things are just what’s showing, underneath all that I know, is the knowing.” It’s a tender finish to an intriguing effort.

This record is a bit of a grab-bag, as most of the songs were written between 2011 and 2023. Sometimes, this approach really works (e.g. Elvis Costello’s All This Useless Beauty and The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You) sometimes it falls flat. Unprecedented Shit lands somewhere in the middle, lacking a cohesive vision. Production-wise, it’s a hard left turn, taking a twisty path away from everything that’s come before. But maybe, that’s the point. It’s always interesting when an artist follows their muse.

Much like Rickie Lee Jones’ 1997 effort Ghostyhead, which found the Duchess Of Cool jettisoning her Boho grandeur and cloaking that album in Techno and Trip-Hop, this record subverts expectations and charts its own course. Initially, it might alienate her audience, but it’s a bold and provocative move. From Ani DiFranco, nothing else will do.