Self-Love, Difficult Relationships, and Activism: Ani DiFranco’s “Revolutionary Love”

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R E V I E W – M U S I C  A L B U M

Arwin Shams Siddiquee

Revolutionary Love is the 20th studio album by nine-time Grammy nominee, American neo-folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who’s been putting out music since her first studio album in 1990.

“Activism and art for me come from the same place: the need to be whole. And as far as I know, one cannot be whole when you’re surrounded by broken people. You cannot save yourself alone. So, everything that makes me march on the streets, or write a political song, or write a letter to some authoritative entity or whatever I’m doing, it’s the same thing that makes me sing.” 

DiFranco’s music has always reflected strong themes of social activism which can be seen as an extension of her real-life work for LGBTQ+ visibility, abortion rights, anti-racism, anti-war movements, and more. Revolutionary Love explores themes of self-love, abusive relationships, and recovery, activism, and social change through Ani’s powerful vocal performances over instrumentals ranging from blues ballads to acoustic neo-folk and more.

The album opens on the title track “Revolutionary Love” — a slow, groovy funk pop/soul number carrying the message of revolutionary, defiant self love at its core. Next up is “Bad Dream” with its smooth organ, funky, layered vocal harmonies, and bluesy guitar melodies. Bad Dream is a song about abusive relationships, like bad dreams that leave you immobilised and are hard to escape.

In “Chloroform”, DiFranco sings of a toxic relationship blind to the pains they cause each other. The melody is not as smooth as the previous tracks — a bumpy, dissonant string section starts the tune out, and the vocal harmonies serve to increase the feeling of discomfort and unease juxtaposed with the absence of rich organ chords the listener experienced back to back in the last two songs, seemingly an extension of the mutually destructive, almost chloroform-induced numbness of the relationships being portrayed through the song.

“Contagious” sounds straight out of a bar scene from a Bond film — the deftly plucked double bass thumping slowly to the beat of a steady hi-hat leading into a descending melody before Ani starts to sing a song filled with disjointed instrumental runs and melodic sequences that make you feel like you’re about to order a Vesper Martini at an underground club somewhere in Europe.

The next track, “Do or Die”, is a major-key groove with the playful rhythm section and funky woodwinds playing off each other under DiFranco’s almost conversational vocals making for a number you’d love to move to. “Why are we fighting each other/We should be working together” says long-time social activist Ani DiFranco in the instrumental track “Station Identification” — a song located almost smack dab in the middle of the nearly 56-minute-long album. Its subdued instrumentals make it feel like an interlude — a moment of rest in the often-energetic collection of music that is “Revolutionary Love”.

Next is “Shrinking Violet”, a slow, bluesy ballad about the mistrust and fear of being in an abusive relationship and the struggles of moving on. The simple, full piano chords fit perfectly with the vocal harmonies and minor pentatonic blues guitar parts to make this, in my opinion, one of the best tracks on the album.

“Metropolis” opens with beautiful open chords and melodies on an acoustic guitar accompanied by a large, echoing piano grounding the instrumental part of the song. Ani sings of strong imagery of city life and falling comfortably in love. This track slows it all the way down and takes it easy. The only thing it’s trying to do is tell a story, and the ethereal atmosphere it creates all but makes sure you’ll listen.

In “Simultaneously”, DiFranco speaks of her longing for peace and balance in the world, one which is so different from the love and harmony she holds inside her. The influences of her activism on her music shines through in this short, energetic number. The instrumental track “Confluence” is a calm, steady arrangement of brass and woodwinds playing off a vibrant, playful rhythm section, giving the song a vintage vibe. The final track of the album is “Crocus”, a major-key ballad that sings of love healing. The lyrics hold strong imagery of working through the problems in a relationship in a healthy way, making love stronger like a crocus in bloom. The whole track radiates a kind of hopeful joy, almost like the embrace of a truly revolutionary, healthy love.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and reviewing this album and highly recommend it for anyone who likes neo-folk, blues, and smooth jazz. It is no small feat to be putting out music consistently since 1990 and still being relevant today. However, Revolutionary Love is a joy to listen to, and everything from DiFranco’s rich vocal performances to the smooth-flowing instrumentals make the album a testament to the artist’s capacity to make enjoyable music with powerful messages, even at age fifty.

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