If you're annoyed by those relentlessly happy people who put smiley faces in e-mails, Aimee Mann's new album is for you: "@#%&! Smilers!" With its scheduled June 3 release, Mann seems to be suggesting that we all take her music a little less seriously from now on.
Despite her Grammy-winning couplets about missed opportunities and wayward souls, Mann is not one of the desperate characters in her songs. Somewhere between 1999's "Magnolia" soundtrack and her 2005 concept album, "The Forgotten Arm," Mann's cool factor tripled, catapulting her from mere champion of the indie music spirit to the embodiment of modern literate songwriting.
Perhaps "Forgotten Arm"'s story about an alcoholic Vietnam vet and his "kind of white trash" girlfriend proved too dramatic for critics and fans alike, or maybe the ensuing hoopla about her finely crafted verse threatened to overshadow the importance of her melodic gifts. Either way, "Smilers" is set to bring about a sea change in Mann's continuum. Her words have once again met their match in a collection of tunes filled with chewy hooks, buffered by what feels like a newfound optimism.
"Freeway," the album's groovy midtempo opener, is a yarn about a Southern California druggie who cruises I-5 to feed his addiction. In typical Mann fashion, a happy-go-lucky major-key refrain disguises dark subject matter. "You got a lot of money, but you can't afford the freeway," she sings over a distorted Wurlitzer organ riff. The chorus is so catchy the listener holds out hope that this addict will eventually get his act together.
Mann tells NEWSWEEK the song was inspired by a friend with a nasty amphetamine habit and a fat wallet. "In this case, [he] was living in Los Angeles, going down to Orange County and talking doctors into prescribing him speed, because he was charming and had money. It's well and good to have a lot of money, but you can't really afford to have that much money, because it enables you to slowly kill yourself." Full of the interwoven stories and jaunty musical arrangements that have become her trademark, "Freeway" is one of the many character studies that makes Mann's seventh solo album such a welcome return to form.
The new songs, which run the gamut from an acoustic personality storm ("Little Tornado") and a slow-dance séance ("True Believer," written with Grant-Lee Phillips) to a cautionary fairy tale with a full horn section ("Borrowing Time"), were recorded live in the studio, without any electric guitars. "Musically, it's very rich," Mann says of the album's array of vintage organ, synthesizer and clavinet sounds. "The keyboards really rule the day. They take over the job of the electric guitar, and there sort of wasn't any need for it. It became redundant and was relegated to the closet."
Thanks in part to its fun keyboards, "Smilers" oozes the easy charm that "The Forgotten Arm" and "Lost in Space" (2002) lacked. Whether reminiscing about being "Thirty-One Today" over a bubbling wah-wah or giving a saloon piano salute to a 19th-century American beer ("Ballantines"), Mann's droll rhymes are as fresh as they were on her 1993 solo debut, "Whatever"—yet now come seasoned with confidence about her place in the world and in rock and roll history.
As for Mann's journey, her much publicized record company woes made her the poster child for mishandled artists throughout the 1990s. She married musician Michael Penn (who'd also had label troubles) in 1997 and began releasing music on her own imprint, SuperEgo Records, beginning with the online-only "Bachelor No. 2" in 2000. She continues today as an advocate for musicians' rights.
But the pivotal moment in her career came in 1999, when her songs became the soundtrack to the film "Magnolia." Director Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly wrote his screenplay based on a line from one of Mann's songs, and an Oscar nomination for Best Song ("Save Me") won her mainstream credibility and a new generation of fans (many of whom were too young to remember Mann as the big-haired singer of the underrated 1980s band, 'Til Tuesday).
While critics greeted Mann with open ears after "Magnolia," she hopes no one mistook her accolades or soundtrack wordplay for self-seriousness. "You have to remember that my perception of my music doesn't really change, and my perception of myself doesn't really change," the singer explains. "So [it] becomes more of a business thing, where you have more opportunities and people take you seriously. That's really nice, and it's gratifying, but you can't jump on it and take it to heart, because eventually [the attention] will be gone."
At 47, Mann treads the axis between lo-fi street cred and highbrow culture. She chronicled her love-hate relationship with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in a New York Times op-ed last June, and a few weeks later talked to Britain's Guardian newspaper about designer handbags, L.A.'s Museum of Jurassic Technology, and the German Expressionist art of Max Beckmann. At press time the top-rated iTunes fan compilations ("iMixes") containing her songs are "Soccer Mom Chillout" and "The Soundtrack to My Depression Problem—Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My State of Mind."
At the end of the day Mann may not be one of the cursed smilers for whom her album is named, but that doesn't mean she isn't happy with her current post in popular culture. "You have to have a moderate appreciation of your own ability that doesn't rocket into egotism," Mann says. "You can get excited, but you can't start thinking that you're really special or something. You're only as special as the last thing that happened that was special. It's out of your hands."