Pressing play on a new Aimee Mann album feels like fastening your seat belt while riding your favorite car; with every trip, you know exactly what to expect but are nevertheless surprised by the ride. On Charmer, her eighth studio album as a solo artist, Mann drives to the core of the human condition, as only she so effortlessly does, and introduces listeners to a host of new characters to analyze with relationships to explore.
Aimee Mann’s evocative brand of storytelling makes her one music’s strongest, most consistent lyricists. She showcases people to whom we can relate, or traits we recognize in those around us. On the critically-acclaimed Lost In Space, Mann tackled addiction beyond substance abuse; she demonstrated how people, and society at large, are addicted to fame, self-destruction, and doomed love. She uses this same approach on Charmer, which at its highest level examines self-doubt and loathing, masqueraded by narcissism and excess. On the title track, she diagnoses an individual as ‘hating’ themselves, and a ‘victim of such a hypnosis / like everyone else.’ Further down the list, Aimee addresses someone in the form of everyone’s favorite green, claymation character “Gumby.” This Gumby, however, is having a midlife crisis. Relating him to the beloved cartoon is effective in showing that everyone has a rock bottom, even those with the happiest of dispositions.
Since her 1993 debut Whatever, Mann hasn’t strayed from her sonic formula. Her melodies usually sound familiar, but manage to slowly reveal colors like a kaleidoscope. That’s why listening to a song like “Labrador,” which would fit snugly on The Forgotten Arm, or as far back as Bachelor No. 2, doesn’t feel like Mann is repeating herself. Instead, she uses familiar themes and rhythmic approaches to tell a new story. If anything, the reintroduction of buzzing synthesizers and gritty guitars recall the electric garage band sound of 1995’s I’m With Stupid. For this reason alone, Charmer is a departure from the more natural, hazy sounds of her previous effort, @#%@*! Smilers.
The album rewards you with its standout track at the very end. “Red Flag Driver” is a bit of uncharted territory for Mann. We hear her sing about floating in a red sea, instructing someone to swim or jump to her. She’s giving this person one last chance to set themselves free, before they both drown. While it sounds like an Aimee Mann song, the string and guitar embellishments recall an old western tune. It’s an appropriate way to close the set, albeit a darker endnote.
Charmer doesn’t grab you by the throat and drill its message into your head; rather, Aimee Mann asks you to have a seat in her office, while you witness her playing psychiatrist to individuals (people she knows? herself?) who need an objective opinion with a healthy dose of reality. Listen closely, and you might even hear Aimee Mann diagnosing you.