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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Seeing Red… and Loving It

Well, it’s official — Ani DiFranco has done it all. The prolific singer-songwriter, entrepreneur, and activist has spent her career crossing boundaries of genre and gender, and with Red Letter Year she has crossed into new territory: domestic bliss.

The album, mixed and co-produced by her partner Mike Napolitano, has been the subject of much anticipation and anxiety. Diehard fans have been nervous to see what kind of music, if any, DiFranco would release after trading in her celebrated autonomy for motherhood. Following an unusually long two-year wait, the answer is finally here: she has either hit a plateau or hit her stride, depending on your expectations.

As lyrically strident as ever, the opening and titular track alludes to Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s bumbled reaction – an apt subject, as the majority of Red was recorded in New Orleans. But despite the support of her tightest band yet, long-time listeners will recognize the choral cadence from her earlier anthem, “Tis of Thee.” It is, of course, nearly impossible to criticize a performer for sounding redundant after 28 albums and 20 years on the road, but such melodic predictability gets things off to a skeptical start.

The next track, “Alla This,” is a rallying number featuring strings that could have backed Robert Smith. The words oscillate from sweet affirmations (“I’m expanding exponentially/I am consciousness without identity”) to simplistic provocations (“and I can’t support the troops/cuz every last one of them’s being duped”), which gives cause to wonder whether poetry has been overreached in favor of impact.

Thankfully, “Present/Infant” follows, a tenderly composed instant classic. Inspired by her new daughter Petah Lucia, the resolution to find “something better to do/than make insecurity a full-time job” expresses maturity rare of earlier output. As nervous as some fans might have been to hear their feminist heroine coo about babies, they will have to admit this song gets away with it while staying true to DiFranco’s principles, confirming once and for all the third-wave assertion that feminism is not anti-family.

Red offers many more pleasant surprises, from the funky, James Bond-like “Emancipated Minor,” to the gushing, straight-up love song and tinkling piano of “Smiling Underneath.” We even get the humble self-portrait we never thought we’d hear in “Round a Pole,” which describes the smitten singer as “having let go forever/the fallacy of ever/being alone.”

Most revealingly, “Star Matter” contemplates the cosmos over an aching marriage of acoustic chords and muted trumpet. As if to excuse the new feel-good direction of her artistry, it explains how “love gets started and next thing you know it leaves everything else behind.” While she hasn’t exactly left her politics behind, she has chosen to temper them with a happier, homier sentiment. To those who prized her non-conformist, angst-ridden canon, this may be something to get used to, but it seems to be working for her – and as long as she’s still working, that’s a pretty good sign.