Aimee Mann’s sixth studio album proper, @#%&*! Smilers, sounds much like the rest of her solo catalog. Mann’s melodies have become slightly predictable: biting lyrics are often coupled with a familiar minor chord progression, her bridges are still bombastic and frequently more memorable than her choruses, and so forth. Mann’s knack for songcraft and clever turns-of-phrase is still superb, so predictability in her case also means reliability. Smilers ditches (most of) the obsession with drug addiction that marred the lovely sounding but severely penned Lost in Space and the misguided concept album The Forgotten Arm, which boasted a storyline about Vietnam, boxing and heroin sung by someone who seemed to know very little about any of those things.
Mann is often portrayed by admirers—and I am one—as a disappointed romantic, but she’s really more of a cynic. On “Thirty One Today” (the album’s best song), Mann sings lines like “I thought my life would be better by now/But it’s not and I don’t know where to turn” with a tone of protesting-too-much. This is the same speaker of songs with titles like “Looking for Nothing” and “It’s Over,” and listeners know she didn’t really think life would be any better and that she knows exactly where to turn: to writing caustic, acute observational songs with gorgeous, Bacharach-tinged melodies. (The line about spending your birthday “getting loaded and watching CNN” hits a little too close to home.)
Like much of Smilers, the arrangement of “Thirty One Today” is driven by synthesizers, but don’t expect a return to the new-wave overproduction of ‘Til Tuesday. The Wurlitzers, Clavinets and Moogs on Smilers don’t distinguish these songs from the rest of the modest, unblemished, meticulously arranged pop music that Mann has been making since the Magnolia soundtrack. Her wise, bitter lyrics never let her listeners off the hook; it’d be nice to hear her challenge herself as well.