(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #54 – released May 21, 1996)
Track listing: Untouchable Face / Outta Me, Onto You / Superhero / Dilate / Amazing Grace / Napoleon / Shameless / Done Wrong / Going Down / Adam and Eve / Joyful Girl
When I was 22, I moved nearly halfway across the country. Getting accepted into a Master’s program was a good excuse to relocate from my hometown of Milwaukee, although it had been a long time coming. Four years earlier, I wasn’t ready to leave, opting to attend college locally. I regretted this decision days before my first year at Marquette University even began, but I stuck it out. Resisting the growing urge to transfer to a school in another city, I eventually moved on campus and in four years, in those oft-quoted words of the Indigo Girls, “I got my paper and I was free.”
Not ready to actually do something with my degree, I applied to graduate programs and got into Boston University. I had never visited Boston; nor did I know any of its residents. A good friend from high school had raved about visiting family there, so I decided to take a chance and go live somewhere new for a while. I’m generally not much of a risk taker; nearly two decades on, I marvel at the nonchalance with which I made this decision. I certainly didn’t ponder the ramifications of picking up and putting down roots in a faraway place by myself—all I cared about was living someplace new, something different from the only place I knew.
I arrived in Boston on an oppressively hot end-of-August Saturday afternoon with all I could take with me by plane: a suitcase, duffel bag, garment bag and backpack—certainly no room for my 500+ CD collection or anything to play them on (all that would arrive via movers three weeks later). For now, I had my Sony Walkman and a shopping bag full of thirty or so cassettes, a majority of them dubbed off my own CDs or borrowed from the library or friends. I’ve previously written about how much I listened to my tape of Joni Mitchell’s Blue throughout those first few weeks in my new city; the other cassette I played the hell out during this time was Dilate, Ani DiFranco’s seventh album and the first one I ever heard.
Released the previous year, Dilate was also the first time I’d heard of DiFranco herself, taking notice when it cracked the top half of the Billboard 200 album chart upon release (then a far less common occurrence for a heretofore obscure female singer/songwriter, kids). I must’ve borrowed it from the library some time later, hastily copying it onto a used cassette (god knows what I taped over), not even writing down the track listing, though at the very least I put a sticker on it listing the artist and title (in this limited-access-to-the-internet era, months would pass before I looked up the actual titles of these songs—for a long time identifying “Superhero” as “Used to Be” or “Shameless” as “Skeleton”). I doubt I even listened to it once in the months leading up to my move; I was acquiring so much music then that I couldn’t possibly keep up with it all, let alone absorb most of it.
Still, of the hundreds (yes, I know) of cassettes I could pick from to take with me on the plane, Dilate somehow made the cut. Perhaps I had read an article about DiFranco, or scanned the title while sifting through my tapes and thought, “Hmm, I should really listen to this.” Whatever the reason for bringing it along, within days of settling into my Allston apartment, I popped it into my Walkman as I set out on foot to explore my unfamiliar surroundings (I would devote an excessive amount of my free time to doing this, primarily to escape said shitty apartment.)
As I ambled towards Packard’s Corner and pressed play, “Untouchable Face” began Dilate tentatively, with DiFranco’s reverbed guitar relaying the song’s simple, almost wistful six-note, two-chord riff. Her vocal was just as elementary—plainspoken, relatable, conversational. Coincidentally, the first lyric was “Think I’m going for a walk outside now,” but that’s not what I noticed. As percussion and soft keyboard shading completed the arrangement, it became clear she was addressing the song to an ex-lover who was now with another woman. Then came the monumentally blunt chorus: “So, fuck you / and your untouchable face / fuck you / for existing in the first place.” She neither screamed, shouted nor even blared out those words, retaining the verses’ measured tone, but adding a slightly gruff edge to the f-bombs, as if she spat them out while above all maintaining her composure. As with the opening line of Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid, its shock value called out for attention, but even then, I sensed DiFranco’s aim was less to be bold than to just let out and try making sense of some strong, pent-up emotions.
“Untouchable Face”, in fact, was something of a departure for DiFranco. Not that she hadn’t written failed relationship songs before—great ones, actually, such as “You Had Time” from Out of Range (1994) or “Sorry I Am” from Not a Pretty Girl (1995)—but “Untouchable Face” was, in comparison, uncommonly laser-focused and raw, with little ambiguity as to her hurt, anger, contempt, jealousy, etc. Instead of cloaking such emotions in a loud, rage-fueled rant, she used a genuinely catchy melody that probably would’ve gotten her on the radio if not for those multiple but absolutely necessary f-bombs. You’re almost tempted to surmise she’s killing her ex with kindness, until that first “fuck you” arrives, sparingly but strategically deployed, making that much more of an impact.
As it proceeds, Dilate reveals itself predominantly as a song cycle about a love affair’s brutal aftermath. It has less of the explicitly political subject matter that at times dominated her previous work, which likely threw longtime fans for a loop—much of DiFranco’s appeal initially stemmed from whom she ideologically was: a feminist, bisexual, guitar-strumming folksinger recording independently on her own label. While her back catalog (six albums recorded in as many years!) shows her more often than not fusing the personal with the political, Dilate markedly shifts her lyrical focus—it is her most vulnerable, confessional and emotionally naked record to date. Not that she’s become apolitical—witness “Napoleon”, a sharp dressing-down of an unnamed colleague tainted by selling his/her soul for fame. Still, for the first time, DiFranco seems less able to entirely shrug off her wounds; on Dilate, she bleeds profusely and achieves a catharsis that’s rare in pop music.
Those missing DiFranco’s angrier side on “Untouchable Face” should be vindicated by “Outta Me, Onto You”. Musically, it’s more in line with her signature, amped-up, hard-to-classify guitar style, blending flamenco, jazz, funk and jam-band strumming and picking. The primary hook is her shouting, “NO, NO, NO, NO!” over and over again until it becomes as essential a component of the song as the guitars and drums. This rage resurfaces throughout Dilate: it’s apparent in the mighty, resounding thum-thum propelling the epic title track and also in the would-be-exaggerated-if-she-wasn’t-so-convincing contempt with which she spits out the words, “But, don’t be so offended / you know, you should be flattered.” You also hear it in the rudimental, plucked, ugly-sounding electric guitar on “Napoleon”, particularly when paired with lyrics like “yeah I wonder / when you’re a big star / will you miss the earth?” (Not to mention the song’s chorus, which is simply, “Everyone is a fucking Napoleon.”)
However, during that first autumn in Boston, what struck me more than DiFranco’s anger on Dilate was her candor—in particular, how it informed her sense of loss and despair. I was a few years away from ever going through the sort of immense, all-consuming heartbreak this album details so vividly, so I couldn’t fully understand it, but was nonetheless deeply affected by it. I related to that compatible feeling of being alone, completely on my own for the first time, and took comfort in album’s more intense, purgative moments.
Appearing about two-thirds of the way through Dilate, “Done Wrong” is where the cracks in DiFranco’s vengeful façade start showing. With a steady, almost lithe beat, two chords and a wiry slide guitar that doesn’t overpower the arrangement but adds drama when needed, it’s a minor key lament that somehow never turns into a dirge. Its repetitious melody grabs your attention and DiFranco’s salient lyrical imagery sustains it. In describing her wrecked emotional state, she sings “I’ve been like one of those zombies / in Vegas / pouring quarters into a slot,” before turning more direct: “And now I’m tired / and I’m broke / and I feel stupid and I feel used.” The song begins and ends on the same stanza concluding with the lines, “I guess that makes me the jerk with the heartache / here to sing you about how I’ve been done wrong.” She’s knows how inherently ridiculous her plea, her flailing about is from the outset, only to return to it, unchanged, eloquently making known every inch of her hurt, grief and utter despair.
Two tracks later, “Adam and Eve” arrives, even further stripped down to just guitar and percussion. DiFranco’s first few records used this arrangement, often nixing the drums entirely as it was a true DIY production. After gradually adding on more instruments to her songs (pianos, fiddles, an occasional woodwind), she radically dialed it all back for Dilate’s immediate predecessor, Not a Pretty Girl, recording much of the album with just percussionist Andy Stochansky. A remarkably intuitive drummer, Stochansky is masterful at lending subtle depth to DiFranco’s idiosyncratic vocal melodies and guitar strumming; “Adam and Eve” shows what kindred spirits they are together. After an extended intro of reverbed guitar noodling, as if DiFranco is trying to find the right chords, the melody proper kicks in as she and Stochansky lock into a slow, deliberate groove, his drums filling the spaces in between and lending dimension to her guitar. At the 2:30 mark, they erupt into the closest thing the track has to a chorus, with DiFranco powerfully wailing, “I am, I am, I am truly sorry about all this,” magisterially stretching out the “I am’s” over a few bars. It’s just two people playing here, but it carries an orchestra’s gravitas.
Stochanksy’s also effective when simply providing a steady foundation, as he does with the basic, four-on-the-floor beat of “Shameless”. He allows DiFranco’s irresistibly circular guitar riff (rather resembling something off a Dave Matthews Band song!) to take the lead, then complements the chord-changing bridge by playing softer, nimbler, but still in step with DiFranco as she takes the song to a sweeter, jazzier place. Still, he’s on just seven of the album’s eleven songs. After stripping down to basics, DiFranco was again looking to expand her sound, this time dabbling in some electronica. “Going Down” could almost be her take on trip-hop (like a juiced-up Morcheeba), opening with a prominent, shuffling drum loop, then layering in bits and pieces of sampled vocals both sung and spoken. It’s an outlier, but serves as a moody, hypnotic tonic when placed between “Done Wrong” and “Adam and Eve”.
There’s also a seven-minute version of “Amazing Grace” placed near the album’s middle, similarly constructed out of drum loops, sampled guitars, church bells and an elderly woman reciting the famous hymn’s more obscure verses a beat or two behind DiFranco singing them. Rather than stop Dilate dead in its tracks, it adds texture and distinction—another way she stood out from your average folksinger. She’d expand that template even further on subsequent albums, often to positive means (even if increasingly in need of an editor), but never with such potency; her only other record that, in my mind, matches its achievement is the following year’s Living in Clip, a double live album I nearly wrote about for this project. Culled from the tour promoting Dilate, it makes a solid case for her talent with mostly only the support of Stochansky and ex-Gang of Four/B-52’s bassist Sara Lee.
Still, looking back on that time, of discovering DiFranco and Dilate and getting to know my new home, I strongly recall those long walks accompanied by that endless, hypnotic version of “Amazing Grace”. I remember making my way home at night from a bar or a movie through the neighboring suburb of Brookline’s leafy streets lined with elaborate, ornamental century-old homes. Dilate’s beautifully slow finale, “Joyful Girl” would come on my headphones. I could hear and practically feel every plucked note, letting the song’s resolute sorrow and sense of being at peace with the world wash over me, especially during DiFranco’s uncommonly lush, multi-tracked sighs near the end. It had a centering effect in a most disorienting time, one equally frightening and exhilarating, filled with both unprecedented uncertainty and wonder. It made for an ideal, modern day counterpart to that other record I listened to on repeat, Joni Mitchell’s Blue—even though the two sounded practically nothing like each other, they embodied similar states of mind and got to me when I was undoubtedly at my most susceptible.
Next: A Britpop (and British-beloved pop) primer.
“Adam and Eve”: