As a songwriter, Aimee Mann is remarkably consistent. Her five previous solo albums are monuments to technically proficient songcraft. But the downside of consistency is predictability. Even those of us with affection for Mann’s music might grudgingly admit that, though she doesn’t disappoint, she rarely surprises either.
Consider Mann’s previous album, 2005’s The Forgotten Arm. It was a concept album, billed as a significant artistic departure for Mann. Yet the songs themselves all fit comfortably within Mann’s well-established oeuvre. Perhaps too comfortably. And I suppose you could say the same about most of the songs on Smilers.
You could, but you would be missing the point.
Thematically, the songs on Smilers (also known by its orginal title, @#%&! Smilers) dredge the same brackish waters as songs from Mann’s previous works. These are portraits of troubled, failing relationships and individuals with self-destructive urges. And, as usual, Mann adds a few more entries to her ongoing taxonomy of life’s bitter disappointments.
Yet her approach has changed. Firstly, she’s refined her technical skills to the point where they’ve become invisible — you don’t see the skill unless you’re looking for it. Her songs have always been smart, often ingenious, but now they don’t jab you with a stick telling you how smart they are. This is evident on tracks like "Borrowing Time," which subtly riffs on the tale of Snow White, as well as the amazing "Stranger into Starman." At only ninety-one seconds, it is sparse and effortless yet deceptively powerful. I can’t tell if Mann labored over it for months or tossed it off waiting for the cable guy to arrive. That is craft.
Secondly, Aimee Mann has become less of a first-person songwriter and more of a third-person songwriter. She writes about characters now, so while she may be addressing familiar themes, she now addresses them from a variety of perspectives. "Ballentines," a duet with Sean Hayes, is a tragicomic portrayal of a down-on-his-luck figure who’s been rejected by his former drinking buddies. "Medicine Wheel" examines a broken relationship and its effect on a child.
However, this third-person approach has not caused Mann to become detached or dispassionate in her delivery of these songs. In fact, it’s just the opposite, in great measure because of her vocals. Mann’s vocal delivery has generally leaned toward deadpan. She has relied on words, not voice, to convey her songs. But on Smilers, Mann’s vocals are charged with emotion; you can feel the blood rushing through them. This gives songs like "Little Tornado" and "It’s Over" a visceral impact that’s often been missing from Mann’s vocals.
Finally, Smilers features superior production, far better than Joe Henry’s serviceable yet dull efforts on 2006’s The Forgotten Arm. Mann and producer Paul Bryan banned electric guitars from the studio and relegated acoustic guitars to the backround, mostly serving in a percussive capacity. The tunes are instead carried by keyboards (pianos, processed Wurlitzers and gurgling Moog sounds) as well as Bryan’s own bass guitar. Furthermore, tracks like "Borrowing Time" and "It’s Over" are bolstered by perfectly executed string and horn arrangements. As a longtime member of Aimee’s touring band, Bryan has clearly developed a strong sense of how best to present Mann’s songs.
There are artists who are compelled to "reinvent" themselves with each release. That’s not Aimee Mann. Others reinvent, Mann refines. That’s "the point" I mentioned earlier, the one you’d be missing if you complained that Aimee Mann’s music doesn’t change much from one release to the next. Smilers proves Aimee Mann still has plenty to offer doing the same thing she’s already been doing for the last fifteen years.
Because she keeps doing better.