Ken Tucker says Aimee Mann's latest album, Charmer, is a song cycle about getting rid of a cynical frame of mind.
If you listen to the music on Charmer, hearing Aimee Mann's vocals as just another lilting instrument, you'd probably think the album was just what the title suggests: 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 metrically precise, with carefully counted-out syllables and tight rhymes.
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 "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 chilling abruptness. And in "Labrador," she's the dog: "When we first met / I was glad to be your pet, 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 who urges her guy to pay less attention to her and more attention to his daughter, whom she feels he's neglecting.
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 look-at-me stardom after the success of 'Til Tuesday, a period of her life she's repeatedly said she didn't particularly enjoy. But on Charmer, she really commits — she's thoroughly engaged, as when she trades verses with James Mercer from The Shins in the terrific "Living a Lie."
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; about distancing yourself from people who are dragging you down, about building a life that's not, as she sings, "living a lie." I'll use a cliché 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.