As part of ToM’s Best of 2012 our contributors reflect on books, movies, music, and other pop culture stand-by’s that they discovered this year, no matter when their source of inspiration originated. Click here for parts 1, 2, and 3.
Charmer seems like a deliberately inappropriate title for an Aimee Mann album; almost any record from her catalog could just as easily have been called Downer. Mann certainly plays the scold throughout her 2012 offering, in songs such as “Gumby” (“Don’t call me/You should call your daughter”), “Barfly” (“You won’t get high/you’ll only get down”), and “Labrador” (“I come back from more, but you laughed in my face and you rubbed it in”). It is like hearing the advice column of Slate’s killjoy Dear Prudence set to music.
Of course, Mann’s musical persona has always been defined by world-weariness, from her generally gaunt, unsmiling visage to the resigned timbre of her voice. Even at its most chipper, her music is still mostly about disappointment: take, for instance, 1995’s “That’s Just What You Are.” More than a few songs on this new album echo the theme that people will never change, especially certain feckless, narcissistic, more or less abusive men. (“I don’t know just how you explain this/to a kid that has nowhere to live/that the father she has means well/but just has nothing to give”). On Charmer, she sounds like a lightly medicated Carole King singing outtakes from Help! or Rubber Soul (which, incidentally, sounds like a great idea). Her medium is the finely manicured, mid-tempo singer-songwriter song and the ballad that’s more bitter than sweet, often addressed in the second-person. (“It’s not going to stop til you wise up.”) Like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, she is good at turning an acid tongue on the shortcomings of others—the line “Now there’s too many cooks but you like how it looks, when they’re bowing and calling you boss” evokes “Like a Rolling Stone”—yet her music is often most resonant when it confesses and commiserates from the first-person, in songs like “I Should’ve Known” and “Save Me.”
For this reason, the standout track is the genius duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, “Living a Lie,” which is one of the most memorable songs I’ve heard all year and the reason for including Charmer in this year’s best-of. Mercer’s voice is an excellent complement to Mann’s, and his work shares the same deep debt to the Lennon-McCartney school of witty, melodic tunecraft. The song itself is a memorable meditation on a dying (or dead) relationship. Mercer sings the opening verse with a hint of long-simmering resentment, “Though I let you think there was no witness to all of your crimes, I knew what you were, a climber who climbs.” While the romance is stuck in a lifeless holding pattern, Mann implies a struggle with addiction in her partner: “the boy genius just past his prime, building his cage a bar at a time.” Swapping verses, Mercer and Mann show two perspectives on a relationship with resentment on both sides, capped by the harmonies of the chorus: “I’m living a lie / You’re living it too / ‘cause I live it with you / I’m living a lie / a lie I can’t tell.” Anyone who has felt trapped in a drifting relationship can recognize the feeling of “living a lie, a lie I can’t tell,” and Mann’s song captures the sense of denial, love lost, and life going on, for better or worse, as succinctly as anything she’s written.