Charm is an interesting thing. You can’t buy it and it’s damn hard to manufacture. Aimee Mann has it in spades, though she’d deny it vehemently, and has in interviews for this, her eighth solo album and first in four years. Mann is an inveterate composer of sad songs, and on Charmer they come wrapped in the sugar frosted shell of ‘70s power pop.
“When you’re a charmer, the world applauds/they don’t know that secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds.” That’s the hypothesis put forward by Mann on the album’s title track and an idea she twists around across the album’s 11 songs. Charmer as a song also sets the musical tone for the record, synths burbling behind that bruised, sardonic voice and the slow driving sound of a band locked into a groove.
Across the next three songs, the album shrugs and winks through resignation at a hopeless situation (Disappeared – “That’s it/that’s all/you got yourself disappeared”), an almost masochistic relationship (Labrador – “I came back for more/and you laughed in my face/and you rubbed it in”) and a deeply screwed up woman (Crazy Town – “A girl who lives in crazy town…”).
Not a great deal changes in Aimee Mann’s world. The tone of her lyrics and her worldview has stayed comfortingly similar since her breakout, Bachelor No.2. It’s the injection of more noticeable pop keyboards and synths that most makes Charmer stand out. Mann’s name checking of The Cars, Split Enz, Blondie and ABBA makes a lot of sense; and the bombastic sadness of Supertramp should be added to that list.
Living A Lie, a duet with The Shins’ James Mercer, is a gorgeous curio, painting a picture of a couple stuck together but pulling apart, keyboards whirling behind them and vocals wrapping uncomfortably around each other in the chorus. Slip And Roll is as arresting, recalling the boxing metaphors of Mann’s earlier album, The Forgotten Arm: “Slip and roll/’til you’re willing to take the hit…” The song slows the album’s pace with a slow burning synth line delicate beneath an almost country licks. Barfly carries a similar mood, a resigned strum, beamed in from a Bukowskian dive.
Gumby and Gamma Ray are a pair of sparkling power pop tunes. Gumby feels like classic Mann, a character study with piano and lilting guitar, pushed along by insistent drums and lyrics that are quietly grim: “How bad must it be to be bad as this//filling a bottomless pit…” Gamma Ray is world play and skittering guitar, one of the undoubted highlights of the record.
Red Flag Diver, the closer, feels like a riddle, lyrics twisting in circles and strings rising up behind a hypnotic vocal from Mann. It makes a perfect book-end with Charmer, providing another perspective on a figure whose allure is not as it seems: “Red flag diver/swim to me/you’ll be miserable/but I’ll be free”.
In the video for Charmer, Mann sends a robot version of herself, played by Laura Linney, out on tour in her place. That feels very appropriate as, in some ways, you could produce a series of algorithms to write an Aimee Mann record – the tinge of irony, the dollops of sadness and the lashings of sarcasm. But doing that would leave you wanting. There is some magic to Mann’s music and it’s often hard to define. Charmer is charming, even if it is sometimes difficult to explain why.