I was digging through some old CDs the other day and happened across a compilation disc I made in the mid-’90s that had the title: Aimee Mann: My Miserable Life. Don’t get me wrong, I love Aimee Mann, and have been a big fan of her music since the ‘Til Tuesday days, but there’s something about the misery and pain of a broken heart that Aimee chronicles so well. Maybe it was her relationship with Jules Shear that went sour and she used that pain to become a minor queen of misery. But whatever the case, she was able to use that failed relationship and mine some lyrical gold for two of ‘Til Tuesday’s best albums (Welcome Home and Everything’s Different Now), and three wonderfully written solo albums. Mann, um, lost her way with Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm. Then Mann’s Christmas CD came out, and I had pretty much thrown in the towel and said, “Uncle.”
So it was with great trepidation that I popped @#%&*! Smilers into the CD player. Imagine my surprise when the pop goodness of “Freeway” came out of my speakers. Yes, the lyrics are silly (i.e., You got a lot of money but you can’t afford the freeway”), but damn if that chorus isn’t an earworm. The bouncy vibe of “Freeway” gives way to more contemplative pieces like “Stranger into Starman” and “Phoenix” — with its awkward rhyming of “Phoenix”and “Kleenex.” A couple of standout tracks include “Borrowing Time,” and “31 Today,” — which, to me, is vintage Mann. The song’s theme of quarter life malaise offers some powerful lyrics of lost youth and impending mid-adulthood: “I thought my life would be different somehow/I thought my life would be better by now/But it’s not and I don’t know where to turn.” In many ways, “31 Today” is the second part to “Coming Up Close” that Mann penned for ‘Til Tuesday’s Welcome Home album. However, this time instead of love lost, there’s an emotional emptiness that is somewhat dulled with alcohol and TV. Like I said, misery and pain are Mann’s forte.
It’s unfortunate that after “31 Today” the songs on @#%&*! Smilers drift off into a beige haze. Still, given what came before on the track listing, the CD contains a good collection of tracks that demonstrate Mann’s talent for exploring dark themes in the structure of a catchy pop song.