ANI DIFRANCO: ALLERGIC TO WATER (2014)
1) Dithering; 2) See See See See; 3) Woe Be Gone; 4) Careless Words; 5) Allergic To Water; 6) Harder Than It Needs To Be; 7) Genie; 8) Happy All The Time; 9) Yeah Yr Right; 10) TR'W; 11) Still My Heart; 12) Rainy Parade.
Sometimes I feel as if the two different sides of Ani DiFranco — the «musician» side and the «make a statement» side — are two mortal enemies: they can never reach a compromise or establish any neutral balance, but in the case of each particular record, one simply has to win over the other. Most of the time, the «statement» side has the upper hand, and we have to tolerate her rudimentary acoustic squibbling while getting educated on social, political, and gender issues. But every once in a while, the «musician» shines through a little, and the better the music gets, the less emphasis there is on the lyrics.
Not that the words do not matter much on Allergic To Water: as you can probably guess from the title, this is an album whose subjects deal with displeasures, premonitions, imbalances, and inadequacies — sort of a natural with Ms. DiFranco, and even peaceful family life could not remedy the issue completely — but, unlike the previous record, this one is nowhere near as belligerent, and comes across as a much more natural, credible, and «pessimistically-peaceful» offering that, for once, gives her the occasion to express her moods and fears more through music than through words.
ʽDitheringʼ opens the record with a few playfully quirky jazzy chords, then quickly turns into a dark acoustic funky groove — a dense, slightly creepy arrangement that recalls her best compositions from about two decades ago. It does not blow the roof off or anything: just a solid groove that perfectly conveys a worried, if not desperate, state of mind, and it sets a perfect tone for the rest of the album: troubled, concerned with the now and the future, tightly focused, but not hysterical or hyperactive. Mature enough, but not too lazy or too rambling — the perfect state in which I am ready not only to tolerate DiFranco, but sometimes even to embrace her (figuratively, of course: a literal embrace would probably get you a kick in the groin from the lady).
Although she will probably never again return to the technically complex acoustic playing of her debut album, Allergic To Water has plenty of pleasant little acoustic melodies — ʽSee See See Seeʼ hops along to another simple, but endearing jazzy sequence; later on, ʽYeah Yr Rightʼ has some flashy fingerpicking, and the concluding ʽRainy Paradeʼ bids goodbye with a magical tone (well attenuated by the accompanying chimes). Furthermore, there are some vocal hooks here and there — ʽYeah Yr Rightʼ has an excellent harmony arrangement, and each verse of ʽCareless Wordsʼ ends in a touch of implied tragedy that she paints in a surprisingly believable manner.
Lyrics-wise, the one track that will probably stick out is ʽHappy All The Timeʼ, because its minimalistic arrangement (just guitar and some friendly, but ghostly harmonies in the background) helps concentrate on the chorus — which one has to take ironically, because one thing Allergic To Water is definitely not is an album about a happy person. Normally, I hate these songs, but since it is the only such track on the entire record, it gets salvaged by its context, and I can appreciate the message, provided I get it right (the illusionary «safety» of the modern cuddled person next to half-mythical tales of heroic suffering).
All in all, believe it or not, this is DiFranco's best album since at least Knuckle Down, and, truth be told, maybe even her best since Dilate — in eighteen years, that is, which just goes to show how much of a pleasant surprise the experience has been. See, in those eighteen years, her biggest know-how was irritation: lyrical irritation, melodic (or «anti-melodic» irritation), atmospheric irritation, all sorts of things that had me (and many others, I'm sure) going «why the heck am I wasting time on this crap?» But on Allergic To Water, she shows that she has not completely forgotten how to be musically inventive and lyrically intelligent without being irritating (in the bad sense of that word, not the artistically relevant one). There's a meaningful moodiness here, and just enough personal restraint and humility to earn my trust; I would never have believed it, but yes, here I am in 2014 issuing a thumbs up for an Ani DiFranco album. Next on the list: start believing in world peace and spiritual progress once more.