Interested in the full range of human faults, foibles, dysfunction, and self-delusion? You could make a re-reading of the DSM-IV Manual your evening's entertainment. Or, more hummably, you could spend time with an even more enlightening catalog of idiosyncracies: Charmer, the latest album from Aimee Mann, one of the more celebrated modern chroniclers of the human comedy. Names have been obscured to protect the guilty, but you will almost certainly recognize yourself in these 11 short narratives, along with some of the souls who might have conned, enabled, victimized, or (yes) charmed you along the way.
Mann has the unique presence of mind to frequently write songs about narcissists. not to be confused with the 90 percent of rock songs that are about being a narcissist. "The first song I wrote for the album was called 'Charmer,' so that's what started it," she says, "and although there are songs that aren't really on that topic, it was a thing that I kept coming back to, because I do think people who are super-charming are really interesting. I see how charm is on a continuum that goes all the way from people who can talk you out of anything to people who are manipulative to people who are almost a little sinister. They're usually people you really like being around in the beginning, because they're so good at creating an impression that is tailor-made for you, which is very seductive."
Perhaps it naturally follows that an album named Charmer would need to be musically seductive, just to keep up with the subject matter. And this one certainly delivers its own charm offensive with a "radio pop"-inspired production style that sometimes harks back unabashedly to an earlier era, three decades or more ago, when electric guitars and synths walked the earth together in harmony. The fuller sound she achieved with longtime producer Paul Bryan is in stark contrast to their much starker previous effort, 2008's Smilers, which was not so big on the new wave. This time, she might even have been slightly inspired by some fellow former Bostonians.
"This time, we bring the guitars back in," she says, "and the bands we kind of listened to for reference were the Cars and Blondie and Split Enz. And 'Jackie Blue' by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, that awesome song-that was a big point of reference." She won't beg to differ if you suggest this might be her fullest-sounding album since the I'm With Stupid era. "I think if you're emulating or inspired by that sort of era of radio pop, it's just by nature more 'produced.' On the last record, our template was Area 51, because it was acoustic guitars and this kind of deserty, tumbleweed feel," she laughs, "with synthesizers on top. This time, I wanted to use more analog synthesizers, because the music I was inspired by was that real '70s kind of thing. You know on Parallel Lines, when they were first putting synths in, but they were still being played almost like guitars? When I go back and listen to that stuff now, I go, 'Oh, this is basically a rock band with just some bloopity-bloopity keyboards on top.' I love that," she affirms. "I wanted to go back to: Remember when synthesizers were super-fun and brand new?"
Super-fun is not a term that everyone would expect to escape the lips of Mann, who well knows that she has an image-and probably preternatural gift-for songs some would consider sad or downbeat. But there's a subtler kind of levity in her music that, followed to its natural end, leads to the kinship she feels with certain comedians, not to mention why she frequently does shows with the likes of Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins. At a Mann concert, you'll hear some of the biggest laughs this side of a Bridesmaids screening, her sometimes arguably morose psychology notwithstanding. Analyzing why an audience so tuned in to the essential seriousness of her subject matter is also primed to laugh is a difficult thing.
"There's probably a little bit of relief of 'Oh, I'm so glad that she's not super-sour and depressed'-so any small joke, I get the laughter of relief, if it's funny at all," she says of the mood at her concerts. "Half the shows I still go, 'Oh, I don't know what to say,' but I've definitely learned a lot from just being around comics. That's not to say that I'm funny, but I think just being around it and adopting a little bit of a cadence or vernacular is helpful." And the wit is certainly there in her songwriting, if you look for it. "There's an irony that's implicit through a lot of stuff. There is always a fair amount of moments where I write something that I suddenly realize is a very apt description of a situation that's uncomfortable or horrible, but the very accuracy of it makes me laugh, even though I can't really expect that other people will. It's a bit of a gallows humor, maybe."
Articulation of these scenarios is the best medicine, whether or not laughter's part of the tonic. And that's been the case ever since Mann resisted an overbearing beau's admonitions to "keep it down now" and "shut up" in "Voices Carry," the 1985 smash that put 'Til Tuesday on the map. After three acclaimed albums fronting that Boston-based band, Mann went solo with the Jon Brion-produced Whatever in 1993, and really went solo-label-wise-in 2000 with Bachelor No. 2 (Or, The Last Remains of the Dodo), which was snatched back from the clutches of an unconcerned major label and released on her own SuperEgo Records, beating the indie rush by several years.
This roughly coincided with Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, the landmark omnibus film that featured a good number of Mann's tunes as a song score-including "Wise Up," the tough-love anthem that might still be the best summation of Mann's entire unflinching catalog. Another Magnolia contribution, "Save Me," was nominated for a Best Song Academy Award (which explains the self-effacing "Oscar loser" description in the tag on Mann's Twitter account).
Among the albums that followed were One More Drifter in the Snow, an unlikely Christmas collection that inspired an annual series of holiday-themed variety shows, and the semi-narrative concept album The Forgotten Arm. Plans have long been brewing to adapt the latter piece into a stage musical, although that's on hold till she has a chance to do some serious work with the project's book writer, David Henry Hwang.
Another planned stage musical led to one of the new album's songs, "Living a Lie," in which Mann trades lead vocals with the Shins' James Mercer. "Because it's such a duet-y duet," she says, "we wanted to get somebody who really had a great voice, and we were lucky that he was game. It makes me laugh, because two people singing a duet is usually a love song, and these are two people that are ripping each other to shreds."
The Forgotten Arm dealt with a subject Mann is obsessed with, as a very dedicated and studied armchair psychologist: addiction. She's also dealing with that on Charmer, but not so much with the allure of drugs (although "Barfly" does have an alcoholic at its center). Rather, in several instances, she's tackling some less obvious but possibly more insidious forms of addiction. as seen on television.
"I was watching Hoarders," she laughs, explaining the inspiration for the oddly titled "Gumby." "The thing I was fascinated by is that you have people who are desperate to help their loved ones who are living in squalor and often in dangerous circumstances, but the hoarders themselves do nothing but resent the help." Another number rich in pathology, "Soon Enough," is "about an intervention-of course, another show I watch religiously!" Mann's co-writer on this one was comic Tim Heidecker, of Tim & Eric fame, who also signed on to direct a video.
As should be perfectly clear by now, Mann is not mired in the traditional business of strictly writing love songs, but more inclined toward diving into the vast majority of human interactions that almost never get a brilliantly descriptive song written about them. Sometimes, of course, it's not easy to tell-or not important-whether her songs sketch the breakdown of a friendship or family or detail a romance gone wrong. "To me, the dynamics of a situation can be applied to anything," she explains.
"In a love relationship, it just gets amplified, and then people get crazier about the results. But it's usually all the same kind of stuff, regardless of who you're dealing with. You think, where have I been in this situation before?" She points out one of the new album's catchier odes to co-dependence, about the good guy who loves playing caretaker to the incorrigible bad girl. "'Crazytown' is more about a relationship, but it could also be about a guy taking care of his alcoholic mother. I can apply that to a lot of different circumstances, and the feelings behind that dynamic never change."
Mann has been cast as one of the leads in an upcoming independent film, and she laughs about her thespian aspirations, or lack thereof. "There's not weeping or anything" required for the role, she humbly points out. "I think I look annoyed sometimes, which I feel like I could probably handle." After a cameo in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, her best known part had Mann playing herself in a celebrated episode of IFC's Portlandia, in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are shocked to have hired one of their favorite singer/songwriters as a maid-and proceed to alternately worship and upbraid their heroine/housekeeper. "That was based on a true story: Carrie had hired a cleaning service and the girl who showed up was a singer in a band they liked." Casting Mann as the star reduced to servitude upped the ante. "People love that show. I love that show. And, yeah," she adds, laughing and cutting to the chase, "more people have recognized me from Portlandia than music in the last year."
Over this past year, Mann got invited not just to do a fictional Portland couple's housecleaning, but to join a Pennsylvania Avenue couple at the White House. She was part of a day the Obamas devoted to venerating poetry (where she performed alongside a more controversial musician, Common). It shook her up, in a good way.
"It had a really big impact, way bigger than I expected," says Mann of the White House confab. "Don't get me wrong: I knew it was a big gig. But I also didn't think it would have this big spiritual impact on me. Hearing the poets talk was really inspiring and honestly made me think totally differently about the purpose of art, which I think heretofore I thought was just a nice add-on if everything else is taken care of-like, a fun little frill for life. But I started to realize there's something more essential about art, and it's kind of the thing that makes the difference between being just a group, like a herd, and being a civilization."
The characters she writes about tend to be caught up in less noble and more mundane struggles, but if art is largely making something functional out of dysfunction, then Mann just might be our laureate, whether or not the president has called back offering her the official designation. She's the kind of no-nonsense artist who'd rather disarm than charm, but maybe you'd be forgiven for even applying that C-word to the Mann's bracing musical beguilement.