- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

Aimee Mann

The Forgotten Arm

#(SuperEgo Records)

Aimee Mann’s fifth studio release, “The Forgotten Arm,” is her first full-fledged concept album, a “novella” about the dysfunctional love affair between a drug-addicted boxer and a small-town girl who meet sometime in the mid-‘70s at the Virginia State Fair.

The deluxe packaging (a strong argument for what can be accomplished when, like Miss Mann, you run your own record company) plays up the literary conceit with a knowing wink — from the pulpy cover (complete with a typically lurid come-on blurb) to the hard-boiled Owen Smith illustrations that grace the lyric booklet inside.

(The album’s title refers to a maneuver in which a boxer repeatedly hits his opponent using only his left hand. The opponent forgets all about the right arm, which then can be used to deliver the decisive uppercut. As Miss Mann says, “The knockout punch is always the one you never see coming.”)

Recorded with a full band playing mostly live in the studio by iconoclastic musical journeyman Joe Henry, the record aims to evoke its setting by sonically re-creating the sun-dappled spaciousness of period classics such as the Band’s so-called “Brown Album,” Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” and Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.”

Of course, part of the charm of those records was the illusion that they were created off-the-cuff — as if a bunch of musician friends just happened to stop by the country estate and everybody set up in the barn and played until the wine and the sunshine had disappeared.

Still, all of this — the pseudo-live atmosphere, the pulp-fiction story line — is mostly just a smoke screen anyway. Musically, Miss Mann seems quite comfortable exploring the depths of her own well-established musical parameters.

This means that certain songs on “The Forgotten Arm” may induce an annoying sense of deja vu in some of Miss Mann’s longtime listeners, but that would be missing the point.

Deathly serious pop songwriters are few and far between, and very few of them have followed the basic Beatles blueprint so unwaveringly and to such psychological extremes. As Miss Mann’s confidence has grown, each new album has contained less and less that’s merely showy. On “The Forgotten Arm,” it’s the tiniest, barely noticeable, refinements to familiar song forms that illustrate her ever-increasing mastery of her idiom.

It’s there in the two-word slide up to falsetto that levitates the chorus of the bouncy 12-step anthem “I Can’t Get My Head Around It,” and in the effortless way her lyrics do exactly what she wants them to do, sounding neither stiltedly literary nor colloquial.

Listen to how the use of specific place names lends a suitably dim light to the cell-like hotel room in “Little Bombs,” or her way of conjuring up a scene with just a handful of words, as in the album’s opening lines, from “Dear John”: “Cotton candy was king on the midway that spring, when I saw you in the ring on the lawn.”

It’s the musical equivalent of simple, elegant, well-made bed linen; this is classic pop music with an unbelievably high thread count.

In keeping with the overall concept, there is a blowsy ease to the ensemble performances, a definite relaxation of Miss Mann’s usual reliance on studio wizardry — more than one song ends with a tantalizing taste of rollicking improvisation.

The guitars throughout are especially effective in re-creating ‘70s-era pyrotechnics without ever quite crossing the line into pure cheese, and the splashy piano playing brings a gust of fresh air to songs such as “I Can’t Help You Anymore” and “I Can’t Get My Head Around It.”

But Miss Mann is too much of a pop formalist to truly let the band off-leash, and that is one of the album’s minor frustrations. “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart,” the devastating ballad that serves as the album’s thematic centerpiece, inexplicably sputters to a close after four minutes, just as it’s getting up a full head of incantatory steam. (On the ‘70s albums she cites as blueprints, similarly structured songs often would vamp into infinitely suggestive, minutes-long extended fade-outs.)

For all her prodigious talents, Miss Mann’s first couple of albums had too many moments of unbecoming vindictiveness and self-pity. Later, on the “Magnolia” soundtrack and her unflinching masterpiece “Lost in Space,” Miss Mann took baby steps towards taking a measure of personal responsibility and showing genuine empathy, but the overall picture she painted was still one of hopelessness, the tragedy of which lay in its almost complete lack of redemption. It was a step up from self-pity, but as any addict knows, acknowledgement is only half the battle.

Miss Mann’s real accomplishment with “The Forgotten Arm” lies in her taking the next step on this spiritual continuum, to forgiveness and making amends. Despite the traumatic experiences of her protagonists, the album actually has a happy ending. In the disarmingly direct ballad that ends the album, “Beautiful,” the two lovers celebrate the genuine beauty they have learned to see in each other — through acceptance of each other’s inherent flaws, not despite them.

Because the truth is, people do terrible things to each other all the time and still somehow manage to go on living and loving. It’s messy business, of course, which is why it’s so heartening to find Miss Mann realizing at last that when it comes to human beings, there’s no such thing as perfection and that getting dirty isn’t necessarily the end of the world.

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