When she was a busking activist firebrand in the mid ’90s, Ani DiFranco hammered out folk music with a punk sneer, a gender warrior with a DIY ethic down to her own Righteous Babe music label. Her indictments were erudite, the anger (and the recounting of wounds that prompted it) was thrillingly genuine and specific.
That was decades ago. DiFranco is now 42, and captivated by her two children. Her move from Buffalo to New Orleans nearly a dozen years ago feels like a metaphor for her mind state. She recorded Allergic to Water in her home and a nearby church in two four-day sessions; one when she was six-and-a-half months pregnant and one when her youngest was 6 months old.
For someone who prefers communication that is close to the bone, it is a knotty challenge to make a compelling and honest album about domestic harmony. John Lennon did it with Double Fantasy and DiFranco herself pulled it off with Red Letter Year in 2008. Allergic to Water works hard at preventing the bliss from becoming bathetic. The joy in family homages such as “See See See” and “Tr’w” is tucked into sophisticated folk-jazz arrangements scrimshawed to suit the artistry of folks like multi-instrumentalist Todd Sickafoose, keyboardist Ivan Neville, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Terence Higgins. DiFranco’s maturation as a vocalist and guitarist also durably enriches this material.
Best of all, though, DiFranco expresses the context of her happiness. There are hurtful eruptions (“Careless Words”) and agonizing tensions (“Harder Than It Needs to Be”). But the songs that register with DiFranco’s trademark emotional clout are more subtle, expressing the curious sense of guilt and dislocation that comes from being a political activist who chooses to raise her brood while the world falls apart. It is the fulcrum for rueful confessions of “Dithering,” the frustrations of “Woe Be Gone,” the satire of “Happy All the Time” and the declarations of the closer, “Rainy Parade.”
On 2012′s Which Side Are You On? DiFranco sang, “If you’re not getting happier as you get older, you’re fucking up.” Allergic to Water amends that proud credo. Of course she’s fucking up. But she’s happier.