Album of the week : Charmer - Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann has said that the poppier sound of her new album Charmer was inspired in part by the buzzy late 70s rock records of The Cars and Blondie. Certainly there’s a cozy familiarity to a song like ‘Disappeared’, in which Mann sings about “the master of the thankless task” over a lightly bouncy melody. It’s the kind of song that’s made Mann a favourite among her fellow singer-songwriters; it’s effortlessly likable, and a finely wrought character sketch to boot. But there’s more, much more, to Charmer than that……

It’s strange in a way to talk about Mann in relation to bands like The Cars and Blondie as though she were paying homage to her ancient rock ancestors. Mann made her professional debut as the lead singer of ’Til Tuesday in 1983, and had her first Billboard/MTV smash while The Cars and Blondie were still very much in the game. But she didn’t go solo until the 90s, and didn’t build up much momentum in her career until around 2000, after she’d wrestled herself free of her label. So, to some extent, it still feels like Mann’s figuring out who she wants to be as an artist

It was Leonard Cohen who famously wrote, “And you know that she’s half crazy / But that’s why you want to be there” about his title character “Suzanne”. The appeal of crazy women to apparently sane men is a common phenomenon in music

And Aimee Mann has written more than a few songs on this topic. In fact, her best known track as a solo artist, ‘Save Me’, begins with the dramatic line “You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet”. The girl in the song is suffering from mental and emotional anguish, not physical bleeding. It’s no surprise that Mann revisits this topic again on Charmer, with the catchy and clever tune, ‘Crazytown’

Mann portrays her crazy woman in bold strokes. She understands that no one starts out crazy in life. Rather it’s the stuff that happens to us that can makes us that way. She delineates the three steps in another song, ‘Labrador’. She sings, “You get bored, you got mad, then you went crazy”

Mann resurrects the former child prodigy, now an alcoholic queen played by Henry Gibson in Magnolia, a movie written around her songs, in ‘Living a Lie’. She’s joined by James Mercer from The Shins. “No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime / Gilding his cage one bar at a time”, Mann croons with a wink. The emphasis on the dual meaning of “bar” works beautifully to nail the prison of lies and drink that has taken over the person’s identity

On ‘Disappeared’, Mann bravely confronts the severed bonds of fading romances and friendships—the tragedy of ending up utterly disconnected from someone with whom we were once intimate. As we age, it’s bound to happen. People grow apart, change, fall out of love, move on. Sometimes they’re wounded so badly they immediately slap you into an unflattering new box—“the cue of people dead to you,” as Mann calls it

In ‘Gumby’, she holds her mirror up to all varieties of ugliness, but also suggests reconciliation and taking decisive positive action before it’s too late (“Gumby, you should call your daughter again”)

There’s a conceptual streak to Mann, which makes her as likely to go for the head as the heart. More often than not on Charmer, though, she is able to match her ideas to music with real kick, as on ‘Slip And Roll’, a mid tempo ballad that builds steadily and sports a smooth guitar solo, and as on the title track, a chugging, synth-stoked paean to all those frauds adept at acting more confident than they should. These are the things that have always set Aimee Mann apart—wonder, empathy, attention to detail, a burning desire to understand the complexities of human behaviour

The music on Charmer could be classified as pop psychedelica (think of The Beatles circa 1965 with modern synths and production). The instrumentation is always bright, even when the lyrics get dark. This sheen makes the unpleasant characters seem not so bad. But Mann is also a maven of the one-liner. She can hook you instrumentally into following along and then provide a telling detail or two that lets you know what the deeper lesson is. Saying someone is ‘the master of the thankless task’ or ‘feeding blue jays at the wrong address’ conveys much more than the innocent lines initially suggest. The connotations of self-effacement in the first line and the fact that blue jays always nest at some other bird’s nest reveal there is more going on then initially suggested

It’s tempting to play psychoanalyst and see Mann as the crazy girl of her songs, the once 20-something propelled to stardom whose career seems to have veered off course from stardom like a young genius who didn’t live up to her promise. After all, she named her record label Superego. But that’s too pat an interpretation. Mann teases us with these suggestions on Charmer. It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!

Buy it here

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