Having broken, with a little help from Laura Marling, the curse a few weeks ago of reviewing terrible albums from artists that I have previously loved, it is now time to review a new album from one of my favourite singers of all time – Aimee Mann. I was first introduced to Mann via a joint effort from my sister and Paul Thomas Anderson's 'so pretentious it might just be brilliant' movie Magnolia. Mann performed almost the entire soundtrack, my sister purchased it and then left the CD in my computer. Being too lazy to remove it, I heard for the first time an album that I still listen to on a regular basis.
After that, I became a bit of an Aimee Mann fanatic. It is fair to say, she is one of the coolest artists in music. Cameo appearances on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Happy 20th Birthday, incidentally) and The Big Lebowski, collaborations with Cyndi Lauper and William Shatner, and a starring interjection on the magnificent Time Stand Still by Rush. The Forgotten Arm is probably my favourite concept album ever and Humpty Dumpty would almost certainly appear in my Top 10 Songs Of All Time. It's fair to say, I had lofty expectations for Mann's 9th studio album Mental Illness, her first in nearly five years.
True to form, the album is a collection of songs that on the surface look like polyester but beneath are as intricate as lace. Title track Goose Snow Cone, a song set to the bells of winter, talks about loneliness and the facade of togetherness that a person must adopt even when they're falling apart inside. Stuck In The Past continues this theme and combines it with the oft-visited motif of Saturn to sing a song of repetition – of going over things again and again in your head, wishing you had taken a different course. As much as I dislike songs about the difficulties of fame, Patient Zero does it with no self-indulgence on a track woven together by broken dreams and closed doors.
Alongside these tracks sits a triumvirate of break up songs. You Never Loved Me showcases the exquisite wordplay with which Mann is so adept. I have lost count of the number of times I have stopped to admire the term 'tumbleweed lexicon' as a term for the subtext of a break up – it is truly masterful. Knock It Off flips this on its head whilst also taking the regularly lauded idea of fighting for someone until the death and casting it in the harsh daylight of reality. Closing track Poor Judge speaks of all humanity as damaged individuals, destined to repeat a cycle of hurting each other as our hearts break and never truly recover.
The album is recorded with an alluring simplicity – subtle backdrops that thrust Mann firmly into the spotlight. Although her voice is not the most spectacular that you will ever hear, it is her inflexion that stands her out from any other artist I've heard. Just when you think you have the measure of a line, she can do something in the very last syllable that takes it in an entirely new direction. It is an incredible skill and it adds such a tremendous dynamism to her work.
Aimee Mann taps into tragedy better than any other artist I have come across. One of the most powerful songs on The Forgotten Arm is That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart. It is a gut punch of a track about knowing that a happy story is destined to end in misery – how when you sit atop the world, the only way is down. For those that choose to see Mental Illness as a miserable album, allow me to proffer an alternative. I see Mann as a shield standing between me and the tundra of the world. She looks to the bleak horizon whilst also sheltering me beneath a blanket of calm. It is a skill that only the most worldly wise of singers can possess and Mann's vision and songwriting strength on this album certainly put her in that category.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“Stuck in the past//I plan it only on paper//Guess I'm the last//A living memory of vapour”
Stuck In The Past
Shields us from a harsh world and
Spins webs with her words
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