Lee Houck on Ani Difranco’s Dilate

Every morning for the last nine days on my subway commute, I’ve been listening to Ani Difranco’s 1996 record Dilate, which is her most devastating, most lonely (and still best-selling) album. I can do this because I’m a crazy, rabid, overdoing-it kind of fan. I have 24GB of Ani’s music on my laptop. (Most of it is bootleg recordings, from every year since 1990. Email me if you want something rare; I have it. Really.) I have seen her in concert 37 times.

First, a little background.

In 1994, I had a friend who decided she was a lesbian. Because of this temporary shift in her sexuality–-she’s dated men exclusively after that phase, and is now heterosexual married–-she started buying Out Magazine. In the back pages of that summer issue of Out, there was a small square ad for the then-new Ani record Out of Range. We’d never heard her music before, but she looked, from the picture at least–nose ring, shaved head, defiant–like she was one of us. Or at least who we imagined ourselves to be. We listened to that album a thousand times, driving oursevles around Chattanooga, our rollerblades in the trunk, drinking strawberry malts from the drive-thru near Suck Creek. The cassette tape (cassette tape!) would turn over, playing one side after another, and we’d listen again and again to the same songs we’d heard not an hour before. In the song “Overlap,” an acoustic ditty laid right in the middle of the record, Ani sings “I build each one of my days out of hope, and I give that hope your name.” We built our summer out of hope, too, we had built our friendship out of it. We soared through 1995 in love with each other and the world.

Then, without warning, came Dilate.

It was devastating. First was the cover art: sour green and sun-bleached letters, black platform shoes, long blue braids, and Ani curled in a ball, her face hidden, like a captive creature, as if she’s rocking herself back and forth for comfort. I put the disc–we’d upgraded now to a portable CD player–in and turned up the volume. It opens like this: a warbly electric riff, bent and shakey from…haze? from waking up too early? from something else? Then, Ani’s voice:

think i’m going for a walk now
i feel a little unsteady
don’t want nobody to follow me
‘cept maybe you
i could make you happy, y’ know
if you weren’t already
i could do a lot of things
and i do

What came after that, the chorus of “Untouchable Face,” was like someone driving a hammer into my chest:

so fuck you
and your untouchable face
and fuck you
for existing in the first place
who am i
that i should be vying for your touch
who am i
bet you can’t even tell me that much

But it was also like this: You know in The Matrix when Neo learns to fly, and he explodes off the ground into the stratosphere? It felt like that, too. Someone had articulated the pain of love and loss in such a way that my insides, my soul, my teenage self had never felt reflected before. (See, I had fallen in love with a friend of mine who was straight–or, at least, identified that way in public, despite our sexually ambiguous relationship, and not really in the usual teenage boy way; by the way, he’s married now–and so I had felt all those things that Ani was talking about.) Ani was writing about how your sense of self gets warped by your feelings for another person. The way you pray for that person to swoop in and make you feel all these things, and then you resent them for making you feel anything at all. Fuck you and your untouchable face.

The album passes through all levels of grief, longing, intimacy, vengeance, scorn–it is the most tortured, beautiful, sad, striving music she had ever made, and maybe still has ever made. But you can’t get to the sunlight at the end unless you pass through the layers that came before it. And the record is so full of pull quotes that you could practically paste every word here and it wouldn’t add up to what you want it all to say.

A sampling:

when i say you sucked my brain out
the english translation
is i am in love with you
and it is no fun

oh now that, now that there’s a problem
you call me up to confide
and you go on for over an hour
about each one that took you for a ride
and i guess that you dialed my number
because you thought for sure that i’d agree
i said baby, you know i still love you
but how dare you complain to me

like how could you do nothing
and say, i’m doing my best
how could you take almost everything
and then come back for the rest
how could you beg me to stay
reach out your hands and plead
and then pack up your eyes and run away
as soon as i agreed

i put a cup out on the window sill
to catch the water as it fell
now i got a glass half full of rain
to measure the time between
when you said you’d come

and when you actually come
and i wonder what of this
will have meaning for you
when you’ve left it all behind
i guess i’ll even wonder
if you meant it

at the time

Then, finally, emerging at the end of the record with “Joyful Girl”–the scratchy sound of the guitar pick against the strings, that mysterious thing musicians call warmth–and those soaring voices, ghostlike, nebulous, but true.

everything i do is judged
and they mostly get it wrong
but oh well
‘cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged

i do it for the joy it brings
because i’m a joyful girl
because the world owes me nothing
and we owe each other the world
i do it because it’s the least i can do
i do it because i learned it from you
and i do it just because i want to
because i want to

The self is still present here, re-built, re-imagined, sustained, redeemed. Even after all that. And what more can we ask for? What else do we want from a great record, from music, from any work of art, but to be redeemed?

Lee Houck was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. His debut novel, Yield, was the winner of Project QueerLit 2008, and was published by Kensington Books in September 2010. His writing appears in numerous anthologies published in the U.S. and Australia, and in two arty chapbooks: Collection (essays, 2006) and Warnings (poems, 2009). He is currently at work on a new novel, and blogs at www.grammarpiano.com.

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