When Ani DiFranco, the high priestess of feminist folk, comes out with a new record, it’s customary that a significant portion of the run time will be devoted to protesting political and social injustice. The quest for equally shared human rights has always been a touchstone topic for DiFranco: she challenged gender and sexuality stereotypes with early songs like “Little Plastic Castles” and, most recently, called out the legacy of trickle-down Reaganomics by rewriting the lyrics to the pro-union song “Which Side Are You On?” On Allergic to Water, her 18th studio release, DiFranco declares her reservations early on about Big Data and internet-induced A.D.D. before largely retreating from politics to focus instead on long-term relationships, motherhood, and spirituality.
Album opener “Dithering” expresses a weariness about the excess of data, information, and mindless stimulation wrought by internet culture and social media. Proceeding at a loping, reluctant pace that suits the song’s message, DiFranco sings, “Mama look at this headline / They say we’re getting dumber.” If this tech fatigue sounds overly familiar and thinly sketched, the chorus presents a lyric that marks DiFranco’s more unique perspective on the issue: “I’ve got a database behind my face / Dithering information.” This surreal, unsettling image of a human mind that’s been overly influenced by machines gets counterbalanced by the song’s use of throwback instrumentation, including a Wurlitzer keyboard and DiFranco’s trademark acoustic guitar plucking.
Fans of DiFranco’s more politically committed work will be disappointed to learn that the album’s engagement with pressing social issues essentially ends here. “Dithering” gives way to songs that address marital challenges and spiritual searching in vaguely drawn, new-agey language that feels both out of touch with contemporary society and disappointing coming from a songwriter whose lyrics have almost always stood out for their precision and their sharp take on American culture. “Woe Be Gone” would be a prime offender on this front, as it gestures toward a general dissatisfaction with the status quo through rhymes that sound forced to the point of not even making sense. In order to complement the phrase “the suffering of the human race,” DiFranco sings, “The history of the world is such a losing place,” a confusing statement that muddles an abstract concept with a nonsensical physical location. The song’s opening verse runs DiFranco’s voice through a distorting filter, thus sacrificing the singer’s primary strength, her crystalline vocal timbre, in order to produce an effect that comes off as puzzlingly childish and meek.
“Careless Words” and “See See See See” articulate the difficulty of maintaining clear communication and physical intimacy in long-term relationships, though the latter song contains a line that a younger DiFranco surely would have balked at. While listing ways to keep the spark alive with her partner, she sings, “Let me know I can still make you feel like a man.” Coming from a singer whose work has often contested normative gender roles and sexual practices, the line feels like a betrayal. The lyric would sound more at home in a song by a less politically aware artist like Katy Perry, whose music has frequently reinforced assumptions that a woman’s primary sexual duty is to please her man.
Standout track “Harder Than It Needs to Be” takes a cannier tack on marriage, complementing simple yet revelatory observations like “it’s exactly as hard to talk to you as it is to talk to me” with subtle brush percussion and a sousaphone figure played over blues-inflected chord progressions. This particular song finds DiFranco hitting her stride, as it optimizes her knack for blending different musical genres — in this case, jazz with country and blues — and for delivering wisdom through clear, no-bullshit vocal inflections. If Allergic to Water had drawn upon these strengths more consistently, the album might have yielded a more delicately handled, astutely observed meditation on social and cultural issues that demand just as much attention now as ever. Perhaps Allergic to Water‘s most powerful contribution will be to inspire listeners to revisit DiFranco’s earlier work, when songs like “Fuel” and “Out of Range” displayed her sharply hewn wit and her fervent conviction that music can contribute to broader movements seeking to make the world a more just and equal place.