Aimee Mann’s greatest asset has always been her knack for inspecting the brittle consistency of humanity through an acute aperture. (Remember, this is the songwriter whose vividly devastating, seraphically beautiful songs were the impetus for P.T. Anderson’s film Magnolia, not the other way around.) Once she found herself free from a suffocating major label experience, Mann self-released Bachelor No. 2, or the Last Remains of the Dodo (2000), a record of human vulnerability and insignificance. Its stately pop songs (meticulously orchestrated and layered, endless harmonies encompassing regal melodies, part Elvis Costello and part Burt Bacharach) showcased a slippery wit: was the music industry a metaphor for relationships, or were relationships a metaphor for the music industry? Lost in Space followed in 2002, exploring themes of dependence and addiction, especially in how they cohabitate within human nature. As songs like “High on Sunday 51” demonstrate, there is no blurred line between dependence and addiction; in fact, one does not exist without the other. (In the refrain “Let me be your heroin”, you can hear the final word as “heroin” or “heroine”, suggesting that to those in need of a fix—be it love or drugs—the promise of a drug or a savior is one and the same.)
Her fifth solo album (not counting her contributions to the Magnolia soundtrack), The Forgotten Arm, embraces all of these themes and incorporates them into a loosely defined concept and sometimes ambiguous song cycle about John, a boxer, and Caroline, who fall in love, escape their crummy circumstances, and eventually watch their relationship disintegrate while on the road. Throughout the course of the record, idyllic preconceptions fade away, good intentions are beaten down by reality, promises are issued half-broken, and drugs cloud it all. The boxing metaphor is especially important, because it suggests that John and Caroline’s relationship (along with the drug addiction that controls and distorts it) is one of physical endurance and attrition. (The title itself refers to a decoy set-up boxing move in which one arm is underutilized for a prime knockout opportunity.) It’s her darkest and most complex record to date, an examination of the centripetal destruction that consumes lives at the point of no return.
It’s a true album in the sense that its sum is greater than its parts; like the boxing match it alludes to, its impact is best experienced by sustaining the multiple rounds, and in the end, enduring the emotional knockout. There isn’t exactly one definitive song on The Forgotten Arm, no one breathtaking bridge that stands out like Magnolia‘s “Save Me” or one stand-out tune that speaks for the record as a whole like Bachelor No. 2‘s “How Am I Different?” In no means does this reduce the effect and poise of Mann’s songwriting; if anything, it more fully unites The Forgotten Arm as a cohesive piece. From song to song, Mann progresses deeper into the jungle of The Forgotten Arm‘s heart of darkness. John and Caroline meet at a Virginia state fair (fondly recalled by Caroline in the opener “Dear John”), flee the proverbial dead-end town confident that “sharing the burden will lighten the load” (“King of the Jailhouse”), and wind up discovering that as much as they’re externally connected by circumstance, a quiet destruction is happening within. Along the journey, addictions are confronted but never resolved (“Going Through the Motions”, “Clean Up for Christmas”), past relationships are paralleled to those addictions (“She Really Wants You”), and challenging realizations are met (“I Can’t Help You Anymore”).
Mann’s band—guitarists Jeff Trott and Julian Coryell, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, bassist Paul Bryan (though I swear it’s McCartney), and drummers Victor Indrizzo and Jay Bellarose—rummage through the songs with a patent professionalism, executing a stout, more meat-and-potatoes version of the ‘70s rock exhibited on Lost in Space. As producer, Joe Henry doesn’t employ his trademark neo-noir style; he’s more interested in simply capturing the band plowing through the record in a live setting, and succeeds by harnessing the true sounds of the instruments. (Many of the songs are mixed with extreme stereo separation, a la the Beatles, panning drums and guitar to one channel, piano and bass to the other. Not only does that allow the mix to breathe, but it’s refreshing to hear the method employed at a time when most listeners would find it foreign.) The sonic shift is a subtle one from Mann’s previous work—the residue of the twinkling Jon Brion-isms has been removed, and a picture of narrative unity has been created.
As The Forgotten Arm advances, things get darker. The album’s crucial three-song centerpiece—“Video”, “Little Bombs”, and “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart”—finds the characters at their most isolated and distraught, but also excavates the most blinding truths. “Video”, a mid-tempo piano tune with a killer hook, looks to fonder memories to somehow obscure a painful reality. The self-perceived reality (“Like a building that’s been slated for blasting / I’m the proof that nothing is lasting”) is too palpable, drowning out any hopes for “non-stop memories of you”: “Baby, I love you / But baby, I feel so bad”. In the shuffling, muffled “Little Bombs”, an even deeper, more shattering self-reflection is met: “Life just kind of empties out / Less a deluge than a drought / Less a giant mushroom cloud than an unexploded shell / Inside a cell of the Lennox Hotel”. The anthemic “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” further reduces the characters’ existences to a shadowy dissipation, unseen even to them: “Like a ghost in the snow / I’m getting ready to go”.
Yet as the songs become increasingly bleak, their melodies grow prettier. “Video” and “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” are two of Mann’s most gorgeous songs; though they don’t flinch from the narrative’s self-effacing resignation, but they sure coat the nasty pills with tasty exteriors. Singing in her sweet, forgiving voice, Mann floats the lilting melodies despite their heavy contents. This concept of dressing up the disastrous: it’s a beautiful paradox. If John and Caroline become the invisibles (or the inconsequentials), reduced to mere supporting characters in their own lives, then The Forgotten Arm is the soundtrack that turns that “emptying out” into timeless pop music.
“Beautiful” ends the record on its most positive note, quietly aching “I wish you could see it too / Baby, how I see you”—but the notion of some kind of emotional redemption is greeted with skepticism: “It’s scary when it’s beautiful / Why does it hurt me to feel so much tenderness?” Happiness is nothing but an alien concept when it’s been pursued and unattained for so long, especially when the core of the album (that crushing hat trick mentioned above) observes life as an excruciating inevitability, something whose only manageable meaning is that it has no meaning. Mann inspects the emotional wreckage left by the mangled incapability of her characters, turning the addiction and futility into something universally beautiful. The Forgotten Arm doesn’t analyze this wreckage; it authenticates it, and in turn, wrecks you.