Somewhere between “Lost in Space” and “The Forgotten Arm,” Aimee Mann got sleepy. Her last album, “@#%&*! Smilers” was obviously a response to Mann feeling that in herself. On that record, she returned to her new-wave roots by adding some shiny synths into the mix. Mann, after all was the lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, the band that gave us the iconic ’80s hit, “Voices Carry.” Thankfully, on her new album, “Charmer,” the synths haven’t receded back into the background. Here, she delivers a peppy, perky collection of literate pop.
“Charmer” is her brightest-sounding record since 1995′s alt-rock masterwork, “I’m With Stupid.” Here are 11 distinct character studies disguised as pop songs. It is evident from her lyrics that Mann likes to observe people, whether it be the manipulative, swarthy persuader on the title-track, the once obedient (but newly awakened) doormat described in “Labrador,” or with wild-eyed, dangerous train wreck of a woman in “Crazy Town.”
”Living A Lie” is a duet with The Shins’ James Mercer. They both sing, “I’m living a lie and baby you are, too.” In many ways this encapsulates the thesis of the record. This is a concept album about put-on personas. An ode to phony, false people. We all behave this way from time to time. We all wear different faces around different people whether we like it or not. Sometimes we do it to please others. Sometimes we do it to benefit ourselves. Mann is adept at this kind of in-depth character-study. It’s probably one of the reasons Paul Thomas Anderson chose her to score his 1999 opus, “Magnolia.” She brilliantly illustrates people who are broken, and yet she finds clarity and sense within their dysfunction.
Her track, “Gumby,” is about someone who is malleable and yet does not conform. “Gumby,” she sings, “I just can’t do anything right. / Don’t ask me. / If I’ll help when helping you / just means someone to fight.” Again, Gumby is a shapeshifter. Gumby is an unpredictable lump of clay who can turn into anything in an instant. We all know people like this. People who are not stable will do anything to satisfy a crowd. This subject is where Mann finds her meaty center. And yet, her Gumby is also seemingly a somewhat estranged father. She keeps urging him, “You better call your daughter again.” There are lyrical references to a bottomless pit. Perhaps he’s an addict spiraling out of control. Again, here is another sketch of a broken person trying to reclaim some sense on normalcy.
”Gamma Ray” is a rocker, depicting an unhinged thrill-seeker who causes trouble and needs to be reined in. “Barfly” is about someone whose excesses have led to “sleeping in a sleeping bag” while trying to “keep clean.” Mann has dealt with addiction in her lyrics before on the “Lost in Space” highlight, “High On Sunday 51.” She knows how to illustrate the negative results of one’s vices. On that same album she more literally approached the topic of flying too close to the flame on her song, “The Moth.”
People on the edge have always been Mann’s bread and butter, but this collection wallows in this lyrical tendency. Her protagonists are most likely doomed. As she sings on the closing track, “Red Flag Diver,” “The white caps rise and fall.” You hope, as a listener, that they will survive, but reality tells you that they most likely won’t. They will most likely be enveloped into the abyss of their own creation. “Charmer” is a powerful and meaningful album.