Aimee Mann has been burned a few times.
The story of the solo career of Ms. Mann is well known: after her band, 'Til Tuesday, found success with the MTV mega-hit "Voices Carry" in the 80s, she launched her solo career in the 90s to critical triumph but commercial tragedy. Albums were released but barely promoted, record labels she was signed to went under, unreleased finished albums languished on shelves — stuck there because the label was gone but the contract still entitled the defunct label to the rights of the recordings. Eventually, Mann was able to free herself from this hellish limbo and finally get her career moving after director Paul Thomas Anderson gave her music a key role in his movie Magnolia.
Getting burned, however, lives on in Aimee Mann's consciousness as a kind of leitmotif. With Charmer, Mann's first album of new material in four years, characters with less-than-noble intentions abound. Charmer is a rogue's gallery of fakers, opportunists and head-cases who simply aren't worth the effort — in one song, Mann paints a portrait of what it's like to be the willing stooge in a poisonously co-dependent relationship with such a person.
In an interview with the SF Gate, Mann said, "The whole idea of people who are charming opens up the question for me: 'At what point does it cross over from someone being delightful to someone being manipulative?'" This conundrum is perfect fodder for Mann's subtly barbed brand of lyricism.
In the title track, Mann addresses the charmers directly, singing "They can't see the hidden agenda you got 'em all on." The album trots out a parade of such characters and their sad accomplices. In "Crazytown," she observes a hapless enabler of a woman who serially draws such willing dupes into her vortex of dysfunction.
Mann's vantage point is her usual one of cool removal, but one senses empathy for the players — or at least a kind of emphatic bemusement at the situation. "Disappeared" describes a person who, finding the usefulness of a friendship having run its course, goes the extra step of moving the ex-friend straight into his enemy bin. Mann's takedown of the narcissistic personality is as incisive as it is lyrically economical. She perfectly depicts how characters with such a binary orientation tend to re-write history to fit their tantrums — not unlike Winston Smith in 1984, physically editing past headlines to conform to updated prejudices.
In "Living a Lie," the dynamic is more complex: two people in a relationship charm one another (and implicitly the outside world as well) into ignoring the obvious: their union is on borrowed time.
While Aimee Mann's lyrics represent the best of succinctly clever, engaging pop-craft, her songs remain a bit too edgeless, a little too milquetoast — a bit too charming. This hasn't always been the case; her first solo stuff — particularly the sadly underrepresented early albums Whatever and I'm With Stupid — had considerably more bite and musical restlessness than the smoothed-out agreeable-ness she's served up in recent years. On Charmer, however, the soft-rock approachability creates an interesting meta-experience: she's charming the pants off of us, just like the cads and ne'er-do-wells in her songs.