Because Aimee Mann is one of the two or three most consistently excellent pop musicians working today, a misstep from an artist of her calibre is generally better than much of what you’ll find on the average singer-songwriter’s masterwork. Over the past twenty years, she has crafted an extraordinary number of immensely beautiful melodies, and peopled her songs with an array of deeply considered and memorable characters struggling with complex problems. On her best songs (“I’ve Had It”, “Save Me”, “Par for the Course”, “Ghost World”) she packs more emotional information into a few minutes than you can pull out of some novels. If we had to nail it down to one key trick, Aimee Mann’s genius lies in her continued ability to limn apparently ineffable emotional crises through disarmingly straightforward language.
At her finest, she is something like the Amy Hempel of pop songwriting. Consider the opening lines of “4th of July”, from her début solo record in 1993:
Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think:
What a waste of gunpowder and sky
A brilliant image, at once deeply instructive and stunningly evocative, it introduces character, time, place. You can almost smell the cordite, and feel her exhaustion, her oppressive boredom. Few other singer-songwriters have this kind of minimalist sensibility (Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, and Greg Brown might make the shortlist), and fewer still have the vocal and melodic chops to get it right on record.
On 2005’s The Forgotten Arm, Aimee Mann put together not only the most challenging LP of her career, but also the most divisive record in her catalogue. Many of her fans — and they are a rabid bunch — were non-plussed by its narrative-driven song cycle. It is fair to say that most found the notion of following a washed-up junkie boxer and his broken-down lover a less-than-enticing excursion. It was a dark record, darker even than the soundtrack for PT Anderson’s film Magnolia (her commercial breakthrough and, up till then, her artistic triumph), and it was perhaps less universal in its appeal for being so much less universal in its themes. While a song like “Wise Up” speaks to everyone’s pain, their niggling failures, their struggles for comfort, a tune like “I Was Thinking I’d Clean Up for Christmas” (about a junkie trying to find the right time to kick) strikes many as too narrow in focus.
Yet, while even Mann’s media and marketing reps are trumpeting her new record as “a return to form” after the “artistic detour” of The Forgotten Arm, to these ears it is much less exciting, and certainly less successful than its more daring predecessor. (I am excluding her 2006 Christmas record, which more reasonably might be termed an “artistic detour”, because it only boasted two original songs.) Where The Forgotten Arm seemed an artistic step forward from the melodic and thematic sameness of Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space, her latest record is more harkening-backward than forward-looking.
Awkwardly titled @#%&! Smilers — so, is it the F-word, the S-word, or (god forbid) the C- or P-word? — Mann’s new record is smooth, moody, and a bit undistinguished. With organs (usually synthesizers) replacing the guitar-heavy arrangements that marked most of her previous work, there is a newness to the sound, but there is also a nagging current of repetition running through the record. For example, the inclusion of a synth line in the opening track (“Freeway”) doesn’t stop us from hearing the melodic similarities to The Forgotten Arm’s “Going Through the Motions”. Moreover, Mann has never much resorted to spoof or homage on previous work, but she lifted that synthesizer sound and approach clean from The Cars’ hit song “Let’s Go”. Strange.
Don’t get me wrong. Smilers is peppered with some wonderful writing, and some catchy melodies, all of which remind us just how brilliant Mann is, even when not quite at her best. There are few who could have written “You love me like a dollar bill / You roll me up and trade me in” and make it sound so defiant, so meaningful. And, even though it might have a whiff of familiarity about it, “Phoenix” is among the best tracks she has crafted in years. The lovely “True Believer” was co-written with Grant Lee Phillips, another excellent singer-songwriter, and their styles merge impressively well. Less successful is the duet on “Ballantines” with San Francisco folky Sean Hayes — tacked onto the end of the record, it feels more than a little out of place, an afterthought rather than an organic conclusion.
Ultimately, on her seventh solo record since splitting from ‘Til Tuesday in the late ‘80s, Mann is treading dangerously close to a self-referential songwriting style. Everything here sounds so much like “Aimee Mann” (lead guitarlessness aside) as to make us want to listen to the Aimee Mann stuff we are more familiar with. After perhaps feeling the sting from fans and critics (misplaced though it surely was) after The Forgotten Arm, maybe Mann has retreated a bit. Rather than a “return to form”, we have a return to format. What happens when a genius who has perfected her approach becomes trapped by that very appearance of perfection? If Neil Young had made After the Goldrush over and over again, would it have continued to shock, ignite, inspire?