Before I say a word about my choice for "Favorite Album of All Time", I feel I should add that my selection comes with an asterisk. I am a contrarian by nature, which means that if I expect most people to vote for one thing, I'll vote for something else, just to be different. This is no exception.
The truth is, the album that I consider to be the best album of all time is the Beatles' Revolver. However, I am expecting a good chunk of my peers to nominate Revolver as well. And, to be specific, the question they posed to us was to write about our favorite album, not what we think is the best album. Lots of people have favorite things that they know may not be the best things. And besides, the Beatles get enough credit as it is. Time to share the love.
That said, my favorite album is one that breaks my heart every time I listen to it, the album that mocked my failures as a boyfriend, the album that even calls me out by name on one song.
'Til Tuesday's Welcome Home, step forward, please.
A modest Boston band with new wave roots, 'Til Tuesday had scored a massive left-field hit in 1985 with "Voices Carry", the title track to their debut album. The video, which featured follically blessed lead singer Aimee Mann dating a thug who ridiculed her rock star dreams and wished she were more conservative, was an instant classic.
This was also the kind of video that kills bands before they've even begun. (Ask A-ha.) People started asking Mann about follow-ups, and Mann gleefully said she was hoping to work with Chris Hughes, Adam Ant's former drummer who had just helmed Tears For Fears' phenomenally successful Songs From The Big Chair. But the real question being posed here wasn't about their music. They were really asking, "How are you going to follow up the video to 'Voices Carry'?" The music had already taken a back seat to the image. And that's understandable, given that they had a lead singer with striking good looks and the most unique hairstyle in pop music since Cyndi Lauper. (I'll never see a braided tail without thinking of Aimee) However, it was not at all what the band wanted.
But Mann was determined. She had started dating Jules Shear, an accomplished songwriter who wrote hits for Lauper ("All Through The Night") and the Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants"), and Shear had raised Mann's game considerably. The follow-up finally came in late 1986. Welcome Home, ultimately produced by Rhett Davies, best known for his work with Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, (not sure what happened with Chris Hughes) was a massive leap forward in direction and songwriting. It positively leaves Voices Carry in the dust.
First single and leadoff track "What About Love" makes it painfully clear that the band is shooting for something entirely different second time around. A minimal drum machine leads to a lush but morose ballad about commitment and the lack thereof. "Living on silence, living by the book / You get it to a science of living on one good look". Here was the first evidence of Mann's love affair with wordplay. Her method was simple and direct, and sharp as a tack. Gone were the dated synths and cheeky production of "Voices Carry", but also gone was the band's commercial viability. The song stalled at #26 on the Billboard charts.
"Coming up Close," the second track and single, is the album's shining moment. Owing more to country than to new wave, thanks to guitarist Robert Holmes' mellow surf twang, the song exemplified Mann's growth as a songwriter and singer. "Don't you know that I could make a dream that's barely half awake come true?" she teases. "Coming up Close" is as close as Welcome Home gets to a love song.
Which is odd, because the real reason I love Welcome Home, for better and for worse, is that it will forever remind me of my first college sweetheart.
Soon after picking up the album, I fell in love for the first time. She was beautiful, smart, funny, sassy, had great taste in music, was a fantastic dancer, and could drink like a fish. She was perfect. (She'll also likely be a Supreme Court Justice one day, so I'll keep her identity a secret.) I played Welcome Home for her, and she took to it immediately. 'Til Tuesday became our "band", Welcome Home our soundtrack. Oh, the irony.
So which song best described our relationship: "No One Is Watching You Now", the final track where the girl gets the last laugh at the ex who thought he could do better, or the devastating "Have Mercy", where the girl realizes she fell for the wrong guy and sends him on his way? ("How do you know who is to blame / You spend your love or you conserve it / It's hard to hear him curse my name / At least I know I don't deserve it") Or is it "On Sunday" (which showcases Mann's finest vocal to date), where the girl is trying to help the guy get over his ex by using her instead? These are not the songs of a young couple in love for the first time.
Oh, wait. Yes, they are. That's exactly what they are. I just didn't know it yet.
Before long, Welcome Home would become prophecy. I would curse her name. I would tell myself that no one was watching her now like I did. But she always had the last laugh. Side one, track five. "David Denies".
You'll hear people talk about how a song spoke to them, that it revealed some inner truth that they couldn't come to terms with on a conscious level. "David Denies" did this in the most literal sense possible, using my name and everything. Sung from the viewpoint of the other woman (a position I'm ashamed to say more than a few girls shared during my college tenure), Mann speaks of a girl who's clearly unhappy about the situation but nonetheless hopes for things to go her way: "It's what he wants, I'm almost sure, and I can hardly stand him saying it's not so / And so I'll wait, and so I'll hope, somehow I can convince him not to let me go".
The joke, of course, was that I saw myself as the mistreated other man, even though I was the one in the middle who was always looking for a backup plan. I was the instigator who viewed himself as the victim, the romantic who found solace in the thought of being wronged, the one who missed the comfort in being sad, as Kurt Cobain put it so succinctly a few years later. Essentially, I was misusing Welcome Home to fit my own selfish, warped interests. "I'm going to leave you, but please don't leave me first!"
Nearly every song in my CD collection reminds me of a place and time. Welcome Home reminds me of what I was feeling as I ate lunch in Washington Hall on March 17, 1988, the memories associated with it are that specific. The album is like a 40-minute slide show of the entire time I spent with that girl. (To be accurate, the slide show also includes the torturous nine months after we split up, too.) It's an oddly bittersweet feeling. The bitter part is, of course, just how painful the whole experience was, even if it was mostly self-inflicted. The sweet part was that nothing touches the feeling of falling in love for the first time. It's scary as hell, but the highs are twice as high as the lows. Welcome Home, for all of its meditations on love and loss (mostly loss), will always remind me of being in love for the first time. Probably not what Mann & Co. had in mind when they made the record, but that's what happened nonetheless. That is why it's my favorite album of all time.
I met Aimee Mann a few years later. She played a free show at Strawberries Records in Boston to promote Whatever, her first solo album. I asked her to sign a flyer to my ex, and briefly explained that 'Til Tuesday was our band. The joke was not lost on Aimee. She let out a small chuckle and gave me a wry smile that said, "I tried to warn you."