What happens when a great talent who has perfected her approach becomes trapped by the very perfection of that approach? What if Bowie had stalled at Ziggy? No blue-eyed soul Philly; no industrial Berlin. For me, prime time Aimee Mann was back at the start of her solo career, with the first fine flush of albums (Whatever, I’m With Stupid, Bachelor No.2) when she was a Power Pop Goddess Princess, before she took a wrong turn and started wearing the Serious Artist labelled heart quite so prominently on her sleeve, and her work became less quirkily inventive and emotionally raw. Since then, there’ve been good songs, but no great albums. More worryingly, her most recent release, last year’s Charmer, evinced a dangerously po-faced moralism. Charm, after all, is not always a ruse with a hidden agenda, and not all charmers are frauds, as Aimee declares in the title track. It is certainly preferable to surliness, which no more vouchsafes sincerity than charm does dis-ingenuousness. As it stood, despite a few decent tunes, the whole album came off like a bitter settling of scores, nothing more than an extended opportunity to get even – and not in a good way.
Which brings us to this evening. It’s the last night of the short European tour, so the band is loose and ready to party, we’re informed. They aren’t exactly passing bottles of Jack Daniels around the stage, though, especially in the civilised surroundings of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Not surprisingly, the set features a hefty slice of the aforementioned Charmer, seven cuts in all. Ted Leo, who provided excellent support, joins Aimee for a duet on ‘Living A Lie’. Older favourites are gradually introduced as the show progresses: ‘You Could Make A Killing’, ‘Lost In Space’, ‘That’s Just What You Are’, ‘Ray’, ‘Save Me’, ‘Wise Up’, her cover of Harry Nilsson’s ‘One’. At a generous two hours, there’s more than enough time for a bit of everything. She also takes spontaneous requests, and has a stab at ‘Invisible Ink’ and, later, the band gets through a tentative ‘Freeway’.
Aimee and her boys are at their best when rocking out, as on set climaxes ‘Goodbye Caroline’ and ‘It’s Not Safe’. Too often though, despite their professionalism, the musicians both look and – worse – sound like a bunch of mid-’70s LA session musicians. Which is what they are, except it’s the mid-teenies. At one point Mann ‘ironically’ disparages their sound as ‘soft rock, like Poco”: she’s not wrong.
Indeed, for all her fulminations against charmers, Mann herself seems to have a bit of a problem with sincerity. She knows it, too. She’s certainly come on a lot in terms of confidence and stage presence from the days when she used to employ a floating roster of comedians – like Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo – to engage in banter with the audience in her stead. She now talks a lot, tells stories, and says ‘Fuck’ a lot. The trouble is, her repeated, thanks verge on Las Vegas-y schmaltz, and amid the professional sheen something more authentically elemental gets lost. For all that, the extended encore is fun, with a version of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Honesty Is No Excuse’, the killer songs ‘Red Vines’ and ‘4th Of July’ (her single greatest moment?), and finally a rousing ‘Deathly’.
Other artists have managed to negotiate the perils of getting on in years, and dealing with adult themes, in what has always been thought of as a young person’s medium, without becoming complacent or boring. Aimee’s live shows are still a treat for her fans. Let’s hope future recording projects are not all holier-than-thou.
Middle age: it’s a bitch, ain’t it?