Aimee Mann‘s career began with her 1980s band ‘Til Tuesday, but her 1993 solo debut Whatever opened the door to what kind of artist she really was. As the album’s producer, Jon Brion, recognized:
[Mann] was already a better writer than me at the time we met [ca. 1987]. She’s somebody who, when the inspiration hits her […] I’ve watched her get an idea for a song and open a notebook and 20 minutes later have something astonishing, beautifully written, emotional as fuck […] She is incredibly fast and truly gifted […] I just wanted to [showcase] what I saw as the really humanistic high quality of her songwriting. People looked at her as a 1980s product. That pissed me off. She really isn’t some corporate creature or writer. I wanted her to be seen in the same light that people saw Paul Westerberg or somebody like that.Jon Brion
Brion not only produced Whatever but played many of the instruments on its tracks as well as co-writing some of them. The partnership between Brion and Mann gives the album its singular compositional character. Although it’s appropriate that only Mann’s name and picture appear on the cover—she did the lion’s share of the writing, and the songs could only have been delivered in her voice—Whatever is a co-creation of a rare order, in which two skilled artists find and influence each other at exactly the right moment, not only in their careers but also in the evolution of an art form.
In 1993, pop music needed Whatever. Traditional songcraft was generally out of fashion during the Bush père years. The digital-music tide of the 1980s had mercifully receded, but everyone was still waiting around for something else to emerge. That turned out to be grunge, which had nothing in common with Mann’s indie-adult-contemporary wayfinding. Well-developed melodies over rich but delicate backing tracks—some of which included string arrangements—had trouble finding a place on the airwaves.
It’s not hard to imagine mainstream ears in 1993 being not quite sure how to hear Whatever (in retrospect, a regrettably dismissive and thrown-away title—it’s too bad Mann had already used Everything’s Different Now, which would’ve suited the album perfectly). Mann wasn’t really the New Wave princess she’d been marketed as during ‘Til Tuesday’s run. She was properly a musician’s musician, acoustic guitar her home instrument, and it’s on Whatever that we really hear her for the first time. The songs demonstrate canny command of grownup chords and progressions, not to mention grownup sentiments and a lyrical mastery that took her work with ‘Til Tuesday to a much higher level of sophistication and clarity.
More crucially, Whatever marries music to lyrics with great compositional skill. Take, for example, the bridge of “Could’ve Been Anyone”. Mann sings this simple couplet—”Your pattern is different from what it implies / The words may be true, but I realize”—over a subtly swelling cycle of chords that build toward the realization, which extends the couplet to a third rhyming line: “It isn’t description so much as disguise”—a zinger of an indictment—with a sudden, swooping cluster of backing vocals entering to reinforce the message just as the chord cycle reaches its zenith and then bursts, perfectly, like a heart at the instant of breakage.
Songcraft doesn’t get much better (or more singable) than that. Moments like it are all over Whatever, supported and delivered by Brion’s inventive yet complementary production, not to mention his excellent, often startlingly aggressive guitar playing. (And there is outstanding session work throughout the album from a range of players.)
Whatever makes a weighty human statement as well as an artistic one. Mann had been a well-established chronicler of toxic relationships since ‘Til Tuesday’s iconic “Voices Carry” (1985). A more adult take on romantic misalliances typifies Whatever, from the weighty AOR-flavored album-opener “I Should’ve Known “to the tender and wounded “Stupid Thing”, which dwells in Jackson Browne territory but is better than almost anything he ever wrote, to the deceptively bouncy and powerful “I Could Hurt You Now” (“Listen, sonny boy / You just don’t get it, do you?”). Throughout the album, there’s a lingering 1970s vibe—you can hear Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and other heavyweights from the heyday of AM radio.
What’s surprising, though, is how much of Mann’s songwriting in Whatever isn’t about love gone wrong at all. Instead, she casts a wider net of observance that collects remnants of her wider and deeper exploration of the world outside. “Fifty Years After the Fair” is a sweet but regretful piece of nostalgia for the 1939 World’s Fair. It’s about the future we promise ourselves and then fall short on—”the damage we do by the hopes that we raise”—with past legends Roger McGuinn and Jim Keltner lending their unmistakable musical color to the black-and-white period piece. The plaintive, acoustic heart-tugger “4th of July” suggests a rending mother-daughter estrangement (Mann’s personal history was formed by one of those). The paired ballads “Jacob Marley’s Chain” and “Mr. Harris” dig into metaphor-mining and careful character study—harbingers of the Aimee Mann, who would later write the concept album The Forgotten Arm and a musical based on Girl, Interrupted.
Whatever’s quiet but definitive capstone is “I’ve Had It,” one of the most underrated songs Mann has ever written. It’s a story song about one of those rare instances when everything falls unexpectedly into place, and we find ourselves immersed in a deep communion with our surroundings while simultaneously filled with a lifting self-awareness of where we stand in relation to our actuarial life.
The story “I’ve Had It” tells is about a live gig that “started out one way”—the players and, it seems, the ticketholders had trouble even getting to the venue—”but it turned out to be okay” for the simple reason that, once everyone was higgledy-piggledy assembled, “we all just started playing / And then something strange occurred / Not a person stirred.” (Note how deftly “Not a person stirred” indirectly but strongly evokes the hushed, tingling magic of Christmas Eve.)
The canniest line comes after the gig is over, and they’re loading up the van. Mann’s character has the presence of mind to capture the moment in the plainest of words: “I turned and said to Dan / ‘Dan, I guess this is our prime.'”
Mann was in her prime, about 30 years old, when she sang that line, and her prime lasted for the rest of the decade. Whatever introduced with authority and power the musician who, by the end of the 1990s, had liberated herself for good from the greasy fetters of the corporate music biz by founding her own imprint, Superego—one of the most powerful moves any woman in rock has ever successfully made. It put her in complete control of the rest of her career.
The dawn of the next millennium found Mann at her popular zenith, taking the stage at the 2000 Academy Awards to play “Save Me”, her Oscar-nominated song from the movie Magnolia—whose script P.T. Anderson essentially constructed around Mann’s songs in a kind of musical ekphrasis. (Naturally, “Save Me” lost out on the statuette to a cheesy Phil Collins tune.) Her first Superego album, Bachelor No. 2, whose rights she had bought back from Geffen, came out the same year. It cemented Mann’s mastery of the so-called “LA Alternative” genre, which far outlasted grunge, alt-country, and most of the rest of what came out of the 1990s. She’d helped forge that genre at Largo, the Los Angeles club where she led the development not just of a sound and scene but of an entire way of perception and expression: frank, literate, gently wry, tender but guarded, compulsively self-aware—”It’s one of my faults that I can’t quell my thoughts,” she sings on “4th of July”—always grounded in rigorous craft and sung with sweet melody.
In 2002, Mann checked herself in for treatment of depression and anxiety, perhaps triggered by newly heightened career expectations but more deeply caused by late-breaking waves of childhood trauma that arrived as she entered her 40s. The two decades since have seen her work and create deeply through heavy issues of depression, addiction, and all the emotional and psychic mess that often lies in wait for us until midlife. (One of her albums is titled, and entirely about, Mental Illness.) During the pandemic, she was afflicted by a debilitating neurological condition that may also have had past-trauma origins. It temporarily separated her from music altogether.
All of that sounds like trouble, and there’s no doubt that living and writing through it is. But Mann’s work since her 1990s prime has built a harder-earned secondary prime of sorts that requires tremendous strength and courage to maintain and extend. Life has gotten far too serious to say Whatever about anymore. Her music has continued to reach into some dark corners of the spirit, and one of the rewards of following her career is being regularly surprised about the difficult places where she’s willing to go. Her first solo album endures because, like the exhibition of hope it celebrated in “Fifty Years After the Fair”, it made her future as bright as it ever was, and there’s reason to think its powerful energy continues to feed her present.