Album: Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers (Superego)

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The Independent Culture

Perhaps heartened by the (artistic) success of 2006's One More Drifter in the Snow – the only serious addition to the ranks of Christmas albums since Low's Christmas – Aimee Mann and her producer Paul Bryan continue its vein of artful, elegant melancholia into an album that attempts to counterbalance on its own the vast, overbearing weight of empty cheer habitually pumped out by the entertainment industry.

It ought best to be avoided by the beaming optimists of the title, Mann's term for those who ask her why she's always so glass-half-empty in her attitude. For, as she illustrates in a series of beautifully crafted examples, there's plenty to be downcast about.

These 13 tracks are littered with the remnants and discards of the mythical American dream, from the trailer-park resident regarding the looming "Little Tornado" with an intriguing ambivalence, as if welcoming its destruction of their old life, to the Average Joe of "Looking For Nothing" seeking safety in low expectations, at the cost of truly living. Failure haunts these songs: in "31 Today", a futile, passion-drained liaison fails to lift the birthday blues, as the protagonist reflects on how reality has fallen short of expectations; in "Columbus Avenue", a loser returns to "the place where you bailed and let the bottom drag you under"; while the escapee in "Phoenix" flees a relationship founded on drug co-dependency.

Time is the commodity most squandered, judging by several variants on the carpe diem theme: in "It's Over", an ageing hustler finds both his looks and his luck running out, while the appropriation of the "la-la-la" hook of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" ironically underscores the enervated resignation of "Borrowing Time": "I don't want anything anyway/ I was happy with what I had yesterday". As the fatalist of "Freeway" acknowledges, what's the point of acquisition, when wealth is so illusory?

Watch the video for 'Freeway'

If it all sounds a little downbeat and depressing, it is, though, given Mann's songwriting skills, it's never maudlin or sentimental. Indeed, while these characters wrestle vainly against their fate, or concede abjectly to it, they're afforded a redemptive quality by the sophistication of the arrangements, which are superb throughout. Using warm keyboard timbres and care-worn horn textures over a low-end bed made from Mann's acoustic guitar and Jay Bellerose's genius descriptive drumming, the settings breathe authenticity into their subjects. The results recall the more thoughtful, subtle end of Paul Simon's solo canon.

Pick of the album:'Freeway', 'Borrowing Time', 'Little Tornado', '31 Today'