Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
So many people likely flash to Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) or another "Magnolia" cast member of preference, solemnly and stone-faced-ly singing her words into a rainy, down-in-the-dumps life/night when they think about Aimee Mann and what she's given us. She, with her lovely overcast and the strident choice to leave all exclamation points for those who express fires and live wires as part of their thing, has shaped a career around her studied expertise in or fascination with depression - or at the very least, a realistic grasp of what it means to be struggling to keep a head above water. This involves a lot of blank expressions, some defeated palpitations, some kicking of the dirt and crying jags, some hopelessness and a lot of choking on the water.
The characters in Aimee Mann songs are getting worked over emotionally, allowed to see some shards of light at the end of the tunnel and then when all appears not lost, they're worked over emotionally again, raked over the same coals that are roughly the same temperature as they were when they stung and scorched the first time. The dosage is tripled as the rug gets pulled out from under those feeble legs and those weakened beliefs again. Knees are grass-stained and faces are caked with mud and there's no smiling that can brush the infractions off. So much of these hurtful episodes is high drama, an example of the dizzying heights that sad times can take people to, where they just shake their heads and wonder if the fall or the leap would really hurt that much. There's a tendency to be concerned for their future wellbeing, whether they're completely fictional or indeed to have actual namesakes and counterparts passing the time out there in the darkness, filling in the time.
Mann is, without a doubt, one of our greatest songwriters and her latest album, @#%&*! Smilers, is her best album since the instant classic Bachelor No. 2 and the aforementioned soundtrack to the PT Anderson dark comedy involving the "but it did happen" raining frogs and skies full of regret-filled people. She has a unique way of explaining how people choose to deal with their own isolation and their discontentment, with their bruises and with their minor failures. There aren't many winnings to go around in Mann's lyrical world. We're hearing when things go wrong and when they've unspooled themselves so badly that perhaps an instinctive chuckle, turned into a hysterical belly-laugh erupts out of a disbelieving victim. The gross of the fight is behind up, illuminated and taunting the afflicted, the trod upon, but a lot of it and the most ugly part of the fight - the most unpredictable part of it certainly - is right before these unfortunate characters.
There's no way to avoid or hide from it so they walk into the teeth of it and recount their bites and markings when they've emerged on the other side in different shape. There's a protagonist who turns 31 years old - somewhat of an arbitrary number - and can't help but bemoan not having a better life or a better handle on life than the one that they predicted they'd have when they thought about the "old person" age of 31. There are countless downfalls and disappointments that are bemoaned throughout the lyrics that cover her songwriting career. Why cheer up if you feel like you shouldn't? Why cheer up if it isn't you? It's almost as if the disappointments that always take center stage in her work are reflections of a dry sense of humor and a chemical burn, able to be neutralized, but only with the appropriate knowledge to do so. We all have a vague idea about how not to be lonely, how not to regret, but only before we have reason to and once we want to not be lonely or to regret some turn or decision, it's too late. It's not going to clear up. The worst is something we haven't met yet. Mann is intimate with how this is going to make us feel. We bow to her words.