Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, joined by a full band as well as Shins vocalist James Mercer, performs an incisive set in 2012 on Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series.
Aimee Mann first found mainstream fame while fronting ‘Til Tuesday, a polished pop-rock band known mostly for its 1985 Top 10 hit “Voices Carry.” That single — which Mann later said was one of the first songs she ever wrote by herself — established her as a precise and observant songwriter. “Voices Carry” captures the anxiety, fear and pain inflicted by an abusive partner; Mann’s voice soars and breaks as she describes how the song’s protagonist is minimized and demeaned.
After three albums with ‘Til Tuesday, she went solo and continued to hone an intimate, worldwise songwriting approach, led by “That’s Just What You Are” in 1994 — an extended eye roll toward someone stubbornly acting badly — and the vulnerable “Save Me.” Mann wrote the latter specifically for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film “Magnolia.” The spare, acoustic song received both Oscar and Grammy Award nominations and “gave a blood transfusion to my career,” she once said.
“Save Me” is also more inward-looking, starring someone who acknowledges she’s a mess even as she falls for a potential crush. One suspects this relationship might end in disaster — but the lyrics leave that open to interpretation.
In the ensuing years, as Mann branched out into comedic writing and acting, her songwriting sharpened and became even more character-driven. Take “Charmer,” the 2012 solo album she was preparing to release when she and a full band appeared on Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series. The album title is meant to be sardonic, as the songs are populated by deeply flawed protagonists: a high-maintenance girlfriend (“Crazytown”), the exes in a precarious détente (“Soon Enough”), a parent incapable of caring for himself or their kid (“Gumby”).
Yet Mann also points out that people are often far more complicated than they appear. The title track, for example, offers a cautionary warning: “They don’t know that secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds.”
“I’m fascinated by charming people,” Mann told NPR at the time “Charmer” was released. “They’re fun to be around, they’re entertaining, they pay attention to you. They’re a glorious addition to any group, until you spend a certain amount of time with them and start to realize that it’s essentially a construction. But I totally buy into it. I think ‘charmer’ is just another word for ‘narcissist.’”
“Charmer” arrived four years after her previous album, “@#%&*! Smilers.” The gap between records was partly due to other pursuits — she was working on a musical with “Charmer” producer Paul Bryan — but can also be seen as a byproduct of deep self-reflection. In one particularly philosophical 2012 interview, she ruminated on creative motivation and what it even means to make records in a contemporary musical landscape.
‘If you feel like nobody cares, then you just feel like, “Am I doing this just for my own ego, just to have a record out?”’
“When no one sells any records it’s hard to feel like anybody cares,” she said. “If you feel like nobody cares, then you just feel like, ‘Am I doing this just for my own ego, just to have a record out?’ And I’ve put out a lot of records, and I’m sort of older, so I don’t really have that thing of, ‘I’ve gotta prove to the world that I’m great, I’ve gotta get out there and show the world what I can do!’ So it just put me in a funny place, like if I’m gonna spend all this money making a record, isn’t that just the biggest vanity project ever if it’s not something that other people want to actually have or buy?”
Mann is careful not to let this skepticism seep into her music — at least not completely. On paper, “Living a Lie” scans as a dramatic (and impossibly harsh) soap opera about a romantic duo with cracks in their genteel façade; as it turns out, the latter was the very thing that had been preserving civility within their relationship.
In the guise of this couple, Mann and guest vocalist James Mercer of the Shins trade acerbic barbs dripping with passive-aggression: She’s full of scorn for his delusional hubris (“No one bears a grudge like a boy genius/Just past his prime”), while he accuses her of excessive vanity and being “a climber who climbs.”
The deceptively upbeat live version on “From the Basement,” which includes prominent swirling keyboards and Mercer reprising his appearance, adds deeper emotional contours. The pair are judgment-free narrators, describing their toxic relationship in matter-of-fact detail. Mercer and Mann sing the lines, “I’m living a lie/You’re living it too” together, signaling they’re a unified front in agreeing that both parties are at fault. As a result, “Living a Lie” is much sadder than the lyrics might suggest; a relationship collapse seemed inevitable.
The complications — and humanity — of Mann’s “Charmer” characters also become more evident on the “From the Basement” version of “Slip and Roll,” which takes the form of dusky, twangy folk-rock. Lyrically, the song is confrontational, challenging a boxer to be brave and willing to get hurt (“So slip and roll ‘til you’re willing to take the hit”) rather than relying on defensive moves. The subtext is clear: Mann is talking about the need to be bold and fearless rather than dodging difficult things, and implores someone to stand for something in the face of adversity. Yet musically, the live song is far more sympathetic — soft-glow keyboards and piano, gentle guitar jangle and a subtle electric solo — which illuminates some of the more encouraging lines. “We’ve all seen that guy take it on the chin,” Mann says.
The three-song “From the Basement” set ends with a buffed-up “Save Me,” which is burnished with whimsical orchestral accents, sun-kissed harmonies and vivacious percussion. Yet what’s most interesting is that Mann and her band end the song by deliberately stopping on a dime, with chords that don’t quite neatly resolve. The effect is that the final lyric, “Except the freaks who could never love anyone,” ends with what sounds like an ellipse — a cliffhanger of a pause that signifies things are decidedly up in the air, to be continued at a later date.
It’s a poignant and mesmerizing move: Time and time again, Mann’s songs prove that neither people nor relationships are easy to categorize — and while an uncertain future can be frightening, the idea of endless possibility can also be exhilarating.
Aimee Mann “From the Basement” Setlist
Slip and Roll
Living a Lie
Annie Zaleski is an award-winning journalist, editor and critic based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her profiles, interviews and criticism have appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Guardian, Salon, Billboard, Stereogum, The A.V. Club and more. Zaleski wrote the liner notes for the 2016 deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” and contributed an essay to the 2020 Game Theory compilation “Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript.” Her book on Duran Duran’s “Rio” for the 33 1/3 book series comes out in May 2021. She is currently working on the book “Why the B-52s Matter” for University of Texas Press.