DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Aimee Mann became a pop star in the '80s with her band 'Til Tuesday, which had a number of hit singles. Since beginning a solo career in the '90s, though, Mann has maintained a lower profile and focused on quality work, such as her contributions to the soundtrack of the Paul Thomas Anderson film "Magnolia," which included her Oscar and Grammy-nominated song "Save Me." Rock critic Ken Tucker says Mann's new album, called "Charmer," finds the musician engaging in new and sometimes surprising roles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHARMER")
AIMEE MANN: (Singing) When you're a charmer the apples fall. And you're quite the little collector. You got 'em all. When you're a charmer...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: If you listen to the music on "Charmer," hearing Aimee Mann's vocals as just another of the lilting instruments, you'd probably think the album was just what the title says: a charmer. The melodies have an airy quality, at once floating and propulsive, and even without fixing on the words, you can hear that they're very metrically precise, with carefully counted-out syllables and tight rhymes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LABRADOR")
MANN: (Singing) They say you shouldn't do the things you do but you're just so incapable of changing. You lied so well I could never even tell what were facts in your artful rearranging. And I came back for more. And you laughed in my face and you rubbed it in. Because I'm a Labrador. And I'll run when your gun drops the dove again.
TUCKER: Once you key in to what Mann is singing about, her new album takes on another dimension. Early on, in songs such as "Disappeared" and the one I just played, "Labrador," there seems to be a streak of masochism, or at least self-criticism. In "Disappeared," she refers to herself as a gullible stooge who's become the latest victim of a guy who drops relationships with a chilling abruptness.
And on "Labrador," she's the dog. Quote: When we first met I was glad to be your pet, she sings, like a lab I once had. But Mann really isn't into self-abasement. She gets in a good jab at the "Disappeared" guy as a forgotten face behind a beard, and she tries on an array of different roles in other songs.
One striking composition, "Gumby," takes a point of view I don't think I've ever heard in a pop song. She's the woman in a relationship urging her guy to pay less attention to her and more attention to his daughter, whom she feels he's neglecting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUMBY")
MANN: (Singing) Gumby. You should call your daughter again. Don't call me. Call your daughter. Gumby, I just can't do anything, can't do anything right. Don't ask me if I'll help when helping you. Just need someone to fight. It's so hard putting on your clothes. You don't even move to cover your skin. Why move? Moving is how things begin. The front yard taken by the crows, blackguards with the shiny pieces of tin. So much fury you bury it in.
DAVIES: In the past, Mann's natural tendency to sing with a rather blank affect, allowing the listener to project whatever he or she wants onto her vocals, has occasionally come across as remote or detached. I heard this habit as part of her rejection of the look-at-me stardom after the success of 'Til Tuesday, a period of her life that she has repeatedly said she didn't particularly enjoy.
TUCKER: But on "Charmer," she really commits - she's thoroughly engaged, as when she trades verses with James Mercer from the band The Shins on the terrific "Living a Lie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING A LIE")
JAMES MERCER: (Singing) A girl comes around at a time when your ground is as shaky as leaves on a tree, creating for you a persona or two or an out and out mythology.
MANN: (Singing) Now, there's too many cooks but you like how it looks when they're bowing and calling you boss. But the powers that were, were invested in her and now winning means taking a loss.
JAMES MERCER AND AIMEE MANN: (Singing) I've living a lie. You're living it too. 'Cause I live it with you. I'm living a lie, a lie I can't tell. So wait for a crack in the shell. Yeah, wait for a crack in the shell.
TUCKER: When you've listened enough to all 11 songs on "Charmer" to form a complete experience, you can take it in as a song cycle about getting rid of a cynical frame of mind, of distancing yourself from people who are dragging you down, of building a life that's not, as she sings, living a lie.
I'll use a cliche that Aimee Mann never would: "Charmer" is about the power of positive thinking, but without the false cheeriness. She may have named her record company Superego Records, but she's trying to work with a disciplined id.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Charmer," the new album by Aimee Mann. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.