It was Leonard Cohen who famously wrote, “And you know that she’s half crazy / But that’s why you want to be there” about his title character “Suzanne”. The appeal of crazy women to apparently sane men is a common phenomenon. In fact it is almost a male rite of passage. Now this is not meant to demean mental and emotional illness. This is a serious topic worthy of sober discussion. However, this is a rock and roll record review and not the place for such a conversation.
And the artist at hand is Aimee Mann, who has written more than a few songs on this topic. In fact, her best known track as a solo artist, “Save Me”, begins with the dramatic line “You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet”. The girl in the song is suffering from mental and emotional anguish, not physical bleeding. It is no surprise that Mann revisits this topic again on her latest album with the catchy and clever tune, “Crazytown”.
Now men are attracted to crazy women for a number of reasons. Most crazy women are sane the majority of the time and can be quite enjoyable to be with. The sex is usually good, and the person is grateful for the positive attention. However, when the person goes off the deep end and this occurs regularly, one questions whether the relationship is worth it. Let’s be clear here, I am not talking about the manic pixie girl of film who cutely takes a straight man out of his comfort zone and lets him experience the happy pleasures of the world. I mean the woman whose suicide threats and interactions with the police due to bad behavior cause one to lose sleep, fail at work, and avoid other friends.
Mann portrays this woman in bold strokes, from the lies and danger she presents to what it costs a man to stay with her. No one wants to be the bad person and ruthlessly drop the person who needs help with her life. One gets caught in a web of wanting to help while knowing the cost is too high for the long term.
However, Mann understands no one starts out crazy in life. It is the stuff that happens to us that can makes us that way. She delineates the three steps in another song, “Labrador”. She sings, “You get bored, you got mad, then you went crazy.” Think of the character in that other song from the MTV-era Mann is known for as part of ‘Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry”. She sits in the audience at the fancy concert hall bored by the proceedings, gets mad at the way she’s ignored by her companion, then loses it and acts inappropriately in a way that can best be defined as crazy. The video is true to the song, which manifests itself as a feminist parable, but now Mann sees the incident from the other side; if a man tells you to shut up during a performance, he’s not squelching you because you are a woman but because you are acting improperly.
Speaking of characters from the past, Mann resurrects the former child prodigy, now an alcoholic queen played by Henry Gibson in Magnolia, a movie written around her songs, in “Living a Lie”. She’s joined by James Mercer from The Shins. “No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime / Gilding his cage one bar at a time”, Mann croons with a wink. The emphasis on the dual meaning of “bar” works beautifully to nail the prison of lies and drink that has taken over the person’s identity
The other eight cuts on the album likewise deal with people using their personal behavior to control other people. Mann understands the irony. On the title song she admits that the scheming person finds oneself manipulated by his or her own actions out of insecurity. The person feels like a fraud because one cannot be oneself, one always has to be the charmer. Like The Marvelettes used to sing, “Things just ain’t the same any time the hunter gets captured by the game.” Indeed.
The music on Charmer could be classified as pop psychedelica (think of The Beatles circa 1965 with modern synths and production). The instrumentation is always bright, even when the lyrics get dark. This sheen makes the unpleasant characters seem not so bad. But Mann is also a maven of the one-liner. She can hook you instrumentally into following along and then provide a telling detail or two that lets you know what the deeper lesson is. Saying someone is “the master of the thankless task” or “feeding blue jays at the wrong address” conveys much more than the innocent lines initially suggest. Not to get too lit crit heavy here, but the connotations of self-effacement in the first line and the fact that blue jays always nest at some other bird’s nest reveal there is more going on then initially suggested.
It’s tempting to play psychoanalyst and see Mann as the crazy girl of her songs, the once 20-something propelled to stardom whose career seems to have veered off course from stardom like a young genius who didn’t live up to her promise. After all, she named her record label Superego. But that’s too easy an interpretation. Mann likes to play with theses suggestions here. It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!