Aimee Mann keeps moving to avoid the world’s smilers

If there’s one thing that gets Aimee Mann riled up, it’s unwanted attention from the perpetually cheerful. In fact, if you run into her at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and tell her to turn that frown upside down, she’ll probably be tempted to knock your block off. Mann might be based in Hollywood, but she’s more interested in the Golden Gloves tournament than the Golden Globes.

But we’ll get to that. Right now, she wants to explain why she’s given her latest release a somewhat typographically challenging title: @#%&*! Smilers.

“Nothing’s more irritating than the person who insists that you smile regardless of everything,” she says, on the line from her Los Angeles home. “Like, ”˜Where’s the funeral?’ How do you know there’s not a funeral? And it also drives me crazy when I hear people cite happiness as, like, the pinnacle of life.

“Nobody seems to embrace the idea of striving as a goal,” she continues. “You know, doing better than you were before, becoming more self-aware, working harder, or having a better work ethic—and that’s part of the ”˜smilers’ problem, too.”

Although it’s arguably less ambitious than her 2005 concept album The Forgotten Arm, @#%&*! Smilers is evidence that Mann continues to improve even as humankind declines. The landscape she surveys is populated by has-beens, addicts, dreamers, and bums, but she sketches them with a wry combination of empathy and skepticism, and backs those sketches with a seductive mix of old-school-soul keyboards and crisp acoustic guitars.

What you won’t find on the new disc is much confessional songwriting. Instead, Mann draws her characters from diverse sources—including the gym where she occasionally goes a few rounds with an Everlast punching bag. Macka and Canada, the protagonists of the new disc’s “Looking for Nothing”, sound like they might have taken a few too many blows to the head, but Mann says that practising the sweet science is one way she stays sharp.

“It’s a fascinating thing,” she says. “You absolutely cannot respond or react, in an emotional way, to the fact that’s somebody’s trying to punch you in the face. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing—you have to keep your head. And I just feel like that’s a great lesson to learn for anything. It’s really like learning how not to take things personally—and what’s more personal than somebody trying to punch you in the face?”