The numbers don’t lie, Ani; I did the math. Binary is an act of transmogrification.
Ani, it really does pencil out. Great artists frequently do their best, most transformational work in their mid to late 40s. The fans often fail to appreciate the originality and maturity of the resulting work, having grown up on the angrier, messier, melodically strident music from decades earlier, but the numbers simply do not lie. Admittedly, they don’t tell the truth, either. But they reveal underlying patterns that the human ear cannot detect, because we often listen to music through the filter of our emotions, and those tend to be calibrated when we are in our relative youth. These 40-something albums aren’t always the most iconic, or the best selling; but they endure and linger in memory long after the first batch of listenings and performances are over.
Consider the following examples, taken from my personal pantheon of top rock, pop, or folk artists who each managed miraculous feats of transmogrification before turning 50. Mark Knopfler’s first solo album, “Golden Heart,” was released when he was 47. Bruce Springsteen – who is born on the SAME day as you (September 23) – released “The Ghost of Tom Joad” when he was 46. You Libras, you really have it rough, don’t you?
Tracy Chapman’s incomparable album, “Our Bright Future,” was released when she was 44; “100 Miles from Memphis,” my favorite Sheryl Crow album in recent memory, came out when she was turning 48. And even Madonn’a largely misunderstood album, “American Life,” came out when she 45 years of age. Talk about a reinvention, even by the Material Girl’s extreme, shape-shifting standards
So, you see; I do indeed have a point. These numbers, they simply don’t lie. And so we come to Binary.It’s not your typical Righteous Babe record, is it? Surely by the time of release, you were well into drafting your memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream (2019). You probably had already moved to New Orleans, and you had kids. The percussive style of syncopated acoustic guitar playing that was your trademark when you were in your 20s and 30s (along with your shaved head) isn’t present here. Instead, there are some amazingly talented musicians accompanying you on every track, especially Terence Higgins (drums), Todd Sickafoose (bass), Ivan Neville (keyboards, piano, organ), Sherik (saxophone), and Jenny Sheinman (violin), plus backup vocalists and other players on trumpet, trombone, the clarinet, and more. Wow! It’s like a real band, now. No more shocking performances with just you and Andy and a crowd of adoring fans looking to score with you after the set was over.
I like the new Ani who sings on this album. It’s true, I needed to consult the liner notes frequently to decipher most of your lyrics, since there was a lot of sonic stuff going on in the background, and you weren’t really enunciating the words the way you did when you were younger, spewing them out like some sort of flower-powered assault rifle into the darkness of a smoke-filled room. Eventually, I got used to it. I felt the funk. I admired the ensemble performance and deep musicality. Soon, I figured out the themes that still are at the ragged edge of your restless mind. Patriarchy and the latest male President; a woman’s Goddess-given right to choose; love as a constant challenge and questioning of age, ardor, and beauty; poetic, Dada-esque wordplay as you rage gently and at times disconsolately against the senseless violence and judgments of an illusion-soaked world; technology and the ways it divides and objectifies us all into packets of commodified data; the death penalty and the imminence of untimely ending of incarcerated lives. Somewhere in all of that labyrinth, I think that there is room for fun and fancyfree explorations of friendship, affection, loyalty, trust, and tenderness (“Even More” is like this). Time to smile, laugh, and hug a child. Kiss a butterfly. Touch the void. And cast your fate to the wind.
So, Ani, l return to the numbers. They don’t lie. You are now almost 50 years of age. You’ve published a memoir. You’ve released this transformative album that clearly isn’t like those that came before. You give interviews to the NYTimes and recommend books we all should be reading. I’m actually reading The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, at the moment, and David Abram is waiting in the wings when I have more energy. Let me recommend Pam Houston’s memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in High Country (2019), to you as well. And maybe Vicki Myron’s Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat who Touched the World , a classic from 2008 that you could read to your children (have the tissue box ready). More animals, and maybe more nature, that’s all I wish for you at this stage of your life’s journey. And the invitation from my earlier review of Canon still stands. We don’t have any sasquatches in the redwoods, but we do have banana slugs and quails and bunnies and lots of singing, growing, shining precious things. You could do worse than all of that. Thanks, friend, for the courage to try, to struggle, to suffer, to worry, to rage, to pontificate, to strive, and never to yield. I hope eventually you will discover the stillness you so clearly seek.