With her sixth studio album, @#%&*! Smilers, Aimee Mann tries to liven up her increasingly predictable music by stretching herself vocally and abandoning almost all guitars in favor of keyboards (pianos, Wurlitzers, Moog sounds). But nobody buys an Aimee Mann album for her voice or her production choices. You buy an Aimee Mann album for her lyrics, for the way she plays with words, the way she somehow makes her non-stop chronicles of life’s disappointments universally accessible. You buy an Aimee Mann album for her defiant conviction that things should be, could be better. This is what makes Mann increasingly predictable, but is that such a bad thing if that’s what her fans need from her? Another word for predictable, after all, might be “reliable.” Aimee Mann’s music is reliable. Reliably good, in fact.
@#%&*! Smilers won’t shock you if you dig Mann, but it does deliver more of what you love her for: vignettes of imploding relationships and folks with seriously self-destructive personalities. More and more in her work, Mann relies upon characters to tell these stories, shifting from the first person to the third person, but this songwriting evolution doesn’t change how deeply personal all her songs seem to be. “Columbus Avenue,” the story of an addict’s ambition on a notorious San Francisco street, might be the best example of this on her latest. “31 Today” is a comical interlude by comparison; the protag is pissed about where she’s ended up in life — “Drinking Guinness in the afternoon/taking shelter in the black cocoon/I thought my life would be different somehow.”
The album’s highlight, however, has to be “Medicine Wheel,” based on a poem by Mann’s sister. The ’70s-style single begins as a stripped-down, piano-driven ballad about the effects of a broken relationship on a child, but radiates triumph with drums and horns by the second verse.