Few songwriters today can dig into the messy guts and gristle of relationships the way Aimee Mann does and still sound so remarkably upbeat and playful. Sure, we can chalk it up to the resolve that comes with maturity; at a youthful 52, Mann has carved out her own indie pop niche where strength, self-reliance and a placid disdain for victimhood drive the narrative (even “Save Me,” her signature hit from the 1999 film Magnolia, rang more like a call-to-arms than a plea for help). But she’s also got a keen poetic knack for observation – augmented, at times, by a healthy dose of sarcasm – that makes her much more than just an “empowered woman” troubadour.
Charmer, her first full-length since 2008′s @#%&*! Smilers, pivots on the theme of manipulation – how people do it to one another and, more deliciously, how Mann might be doing it to us. She hits all the right notes on the opening title cut – a candy-coated throwback to The Cars (recalling her collegiate ties to Boston) that straddles the line between finger-wagging and self-indictment: “When you’re a charmer, you hate yourself/ A victim of sideshow hypnosis like everyone else,” she sings, with a nudge and a wink. Throughout the album, Mann’s lightness colors songs of repudiation (“Disappeared”), schadenfreude (“Soon Enough”) and dangerous enablers (“Living A Lie,” a catchy duet with The Shins’ James Mercer) that could easily feel like a downer in anyone else’s hands. If that isn’t enough, Charmer is also an impeccably-made rock record; backed by a well-grizzled band of close friends and session vets, Mann seems to revel in showing off her A-game, but she’s never rock-star distant. She’s the indie goddess we can still hold close, and there’s a considerable degree of charm in that.