Sick of the road, the media and the pedestals she is put on, Ani DiFranco sounds like she's tired of defending herself. Her latest release, "Little Plastic Castle," oozes with so much weariness, you can almost hear the sighs between the lines. While the anger that fueled earlier, edgier works like "Not a Pretty Girl" is still palpable -- as always, her lyrics are whip-smart and dead on -- her gumption, her fierce guitar riffs and growling vocals are more subdued. Exhaustion and frustration have tempered her sting.
"I teeter between tired and really, really tired," she sings on "Swan Dive," a song about the treachery of fame and the weight of people's expectations. "If you think you know what I'm doing wrong, you're gonna have to get in line." It's a stark song, one in which DiFranco compares the outside world to "shark-infested waters," but DiFranco manages to transform it into a hopeful, if bizarre, declaration: "I am the queen of my own compost heap, and I'm getting used to the smell." This is not the raucous defiance that DiFranco spouted just a few years ago on songs like "The Million You Never Made" ("I may not be able to change the whole fucking world/but I can be the million that you never made"), but then a lot has changed since then. Now that she's firmly entrenched in the mainstream (she has recently graced the pages of Spin, Rolling Stone, Ms., Swing, the New York Times and CMJ, among other publications), DiFranco can no longer wrestle with the weighty topics of love and politics alone -- she must also tend to the fires of fame. "Life just keeps getting harder," she sings on "Glass House," "and it just keeps getting harder to hide."
On "Plastic Castle," DiFranco also grapples with her role as arbiter of all things Girl. With the success of her own record label, Righteous Babe, and her decidedly feminist lyrics, DiFranco is Girl Power incarnate -- and, like it or not, she has become a role model. "People talk about my image, like I come in two dimensions," she protests on the title track. "Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind, like what I happen to be wearing the day that someone takes a picture is my new statement for all of womankind."
A quirky, captivating storyteller, DiFranco lures listeners into her complex psyche. On "Two Little Girls," DiFranco tells the wrenching story of a close friend drowning in drug addiction. "I guess I'll just stand here with my back against the wall, while you distill your whole life to a 911 call." On "Loom," she entertains the possibility of a dangerous romance: "I was giggling and dizzy, flirting like a 12-year-old girl, the carnival of you and me is coming to town." Yet the album lacks emotionally charged rants, such as the explosive "Outta Me, Onto You" from 1996's Dilate. Instead, DiFranco's cries to lovers seem resigned. "Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating when you stopped calling me?" she sings on "Independence Day." "I was cramped up and shitting rivers for weeks and pretending I was finally free."
The finest moments on the album come when DiFranco returns to her roots as a folk poet. The most prolific woman in rock (this is the 27-year-old's 12th album in seven years) is a spoken-word wizard whose lyrics and voice hold up just fine with little or no musical accompaniment. On "Pulse," a sultry, 14-minute poem to a lover, she sings the naked, haunting mantra, "I give you my breath, I offer you my pulse," while accompanied by trumpeter Jon Hassell. And on the spare poem "Fuel," DiFranco bemoans the lame consolidation of pop culture. "People used to make records, as in a record of an event ... now everything is cross marketing, it's about sunglasses and shoes."
DiFrancophiles will enjoy "Little Plastic Castle" because it delivers all things Ani -- lyrics worth writing down, a couple of beautifully tortured love songs and even a few novelties, like the use of horns on the title track and on the noirish song "Deep Dish," as well as guest musicians like Hassel and session musician Jerry Moratta. Her fans will feel sympathy for DiFranco's struggles with fame and its attendant ennui. But for those just discovering her, the cries of the star craving solace might come off more pouty than earnest.