As fall rolls in, nothing scrubs away the mindless optimism of a “Call Me Maybe” like an Aimee Mann solo effort. Or, rather, the duet with James Mercer of The Shins, “Living A Lie”. “For every open arm has a cold shoulder, waiting to turn,” swoons Mann in the final verse.
At shows of late, she tells an anecdote about having been approached to pen a song for the film Shrek the Third, for a scene in which the mood is upbeat and inspiring. “That’s not really my forte,” she notes wryly. Which is well enough. There’s a class of us, myself included, that think if you’re not going to write sad songs, you’d be better off going to dental school.
But Mann’s albums have never been merely stark. Between the retro synths and the hooks that are catchy as all get out, there’s a boreal kind of coziness. The track “Slip and Roll”, perhaps a bleed-over from the down-and-out-boxer concept album The Forgotten Arm (“slip and roll, ’til you’re willing to take the hit”), feels less like getting smacked and more like having your coach wrap a towel over your shoulders while you rest in the corner.
If Mann goes as sappy as “Slip and Roll,” most of the album stays within her signature brand of irony; heavy on the wisdom, light on the apathy. “What’s more fun than other people’s hell?” she pokes in “Soon Enough”. “Labrador”—perhaps the biggest bummer of a song, wrapped in the prettiest of tunes—feels oddly affectionate in the hook: “I came back for more / and you laughed in my face and you rubbed it in.” But this, if anything, is the kind of Sisyphean thesis that Mann has relied on as a singer/songwriter. Anyone charming is just “a victim of such a hypnosis, like everyone else,” she prescribes in the title track.
Her mood and sound hasn’t deviated too much since Bachelor No. 2. If anything, the turn towards synthesizers and a ‘70s pop style maintains a distance between Mann and the general craze around electronic music. And it seems she’s still the only one who knows, as it were, that Disneyland’s about to close. One day, Carly Rae Jepsen will get dumped, as Justin Bieber becomes the next Quiz Kid Donnie Smith.