Aimee Mann’s songwriting is absolutely fucking exquisite. There’s just no other way to say it, really, that hasn’t been said before, and there’s no better proof in the pudding than Mann’s best-of release, Ultimate Collection. Riding high on her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her soundtrack work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Ultimate Collection includes tracks from the days of Mann’s former band ‘Til Tuesday, various soundtrack and benefit album contributions, and selected songs from two of Mann’s three solo albums, Whatever and I’m with Stupid. (Mann’s latest release, Bachelor No. 2, is unrepresented on Ultimate Collection.) Mann is the thinking girl’s rock star, something like what would happen if Alanis Morrissette found herself a soul, Fiona Apple lightened up just a bit, and Courtney Love got smart, and then combined their talent into one body. Ultimate Collection is poised to become an instant classic, absolute required listening. And unlike many of the pieces of silly pop drivel that are showing up on critics’ “Best of 2000” lists all over the place—Madonna’s grossly immature and derivative Music comes to mind—Aimee Mann has rightfully earned herself a place among the very best of the year.
While it’s tempting to discuss the artistic maturity evident on Ultimate Collection, I hesitate to say that a songwriter’s latest release is more “mature” than earlier releases; it implies that whatever came before was inherently immature, an implication that detextualizes the work and lays down some dangerous assumptions. Furthermore, there is nothing immature about ‘Til Tuesday’s three stunning and catchy albums. Sure, Mann’s hair was a bit much, but it was the ‘80s, so she’s allowed, and the music itself was that rare stuff that not only catches the finicky ear of the music-buying public, but also grabs the critics by the head. ‘Til Tuesday is not a band for the ‘80s cut-out bin. That said, there is something about the post-‘Til Tuesday Aimee Mann that has gone beyond snatching the attention of the critics; instead, she has grabbed them by the throat and engaged in a well-managed attempt to ring the life out of them. Her voice is absolutely haunting in its richness and depth, and her songwriting is that fantastic combination of deceptively simple and gut-wrenchingly stunning in its insight. Mann’s talent is rare, to be sure, and almost a bit frightening in its potential.
Even the arrangement of the tracks on Ultimate Collection is smart. Instead of putting the songs in chronological order, Mann has introduced the album with 1994’s “That’s Just What You Are” (from the television soundtrack to Melrose Place), one of her more familiar solo tracks, and doesn’t get into any ‘Til Tuesday songs until the eighth track, the breakthrough and still creepy “Voices Carry”. This move challenges the traditional notion of her writing as “progression”, and instead allows the listener to recognize the suprisingly seamless motion from one track to another that never betrays any real passage of time. Mann’s songwriting has always been sharp and complex, and by refusing to follow a linear line-up, the listener’s hand is forced. Never let it be said that Mann’s numerous battles with record companies haven’t left her as wise as she is talented, and no less in control.
There are some songs that stand out, though, even on a collection as even as this one. “That’s Just What You Are” is brilliantly cynical, “Wise Up” (from the soundtrack to Jerry Maguire) is fragile to the point of sounding positively breakable, and “You’re with Stupid Now” (from I’m with Stupid) is so gorgeous and brilliant I think it actually hurts my feelings. There are other tracks that are a bit heavier, more layered and perhaps more produced, such as I’m with Stupid‘s “Choice in the Matter” and “Long Shot”, that contrast sweetly with “The Other End (of the Telescope)” in all its live rawness, and the combination is almost pathologically addictive.
Mann’s versatility and “fuck the industry” aesthetic come through in the damnedest places here, and makes for a more complicated album than it might at first appear to be. And despite the somewhat unexplainable absence of songs like the beautiful “No One Is Watching You Now”, “Welcome Home”, and even “Love in a Vacuum” (all earlier ‘Til Tuesday tracks, one of which could perhaps have been substituted for the ordinary “Take It Back”), Ultimate Collection presents a wise and experienced Aimee Mann, one who has moved past her MTV image and into the security of being an independent artist in her own right. She has earned all the critical hoopla that has been following her around over the past year, and then some. Like I said, it’s absolutely fucking exquisite.
// Notes from the Road
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