Aimee Mann has said that the poppier sound of her new album Charmer was inspired in part by the buzzy late-’70s rock records of The Cars and Blondie, but more than anything, Charmer sounds like late-period Pretenders, once Chrissie Hynde had settled into wizened elder mode: writing simple, unpretentious guitar-pop music that mainly served to support her observations about the world. There’s a cozy familiarity to a song like Charmer’s “Disappeared,” in which Mann sings about “the master of the thankless task” over a lightly bouncy melody. It’s the kind of song that’s made Mann a favorite among her fellow singer-songwriters; it’s effortlessly likable, and a finely wrought character sketch to boot.
It is strange in a way to talk about Mann in relation to bands like The Cars, Blondie and The Pretenders as though she were paying homage to her ancient rock ancestors. Mann made her professional debut as the lead singer of ’Til Tuesday in 1983, and had her first Billboard/MTV smash while The Cars and The Pretenders were still top hitmakers. But she didn’t go solo until the ’90s, and didn’t build up much momentum in her career until around 2000, after she’d wrestled herself free of her label. So, to some extent, it still feels like Mann’s figuring out who she wants to be as an artist.
If so, the Aimee Mann of Charmer would be a good persona for her to hold to. As with nearly all of her albums, there’s a bit of reserve to Charmer that makes the record easier to appreciate than to embrace enthusiastically. But that’s partly a function of her style, which is about simple structures, easy melodies, and strong words. Mann slips into party-music mode on the song “Crazytown,” but with an intentional layer of irony, because she’s singing a song about a girl whose quirkiness shades quickly from cute to scary. And when she enlists The Shins’ James Mercer to be the Tom Petty to her Stevie Nicks on “Living A Lie,” the duet is ironic, given that the song is about a couple that makes a habit of fooling themselves.
There’s a conceptual streak to Mann, which makes her as likely to go for the head as the heart. More often than not on Charmer, though, she is able to match her ideas to music with real kick, as on “Slip And Roll,” a midtempo ballad that builds steadily and sports a smooth guitar solo, and as on the title track, a chugging, synth-stoked paean to all those frauds adept at acting more confident than they should. If Mann continues to hold back a little, it’s only because she’s keenly aware of how other people overreach and embarrass themselves. That’s not Mann.