Aimee Mann’s album output has nearly followed the release date schedules of the Star Wars prequels. Both Bachelor No.2 and now The Forgotten Arm were released in May (though the former was in 2000, not 1999), and each album, including Lost in Space were nearly three years apart. So, what better theme to have for an album than a space opera with swordfighting? Okay, so Mann’s new album really isn’t based on Star Wars, that would be silly, but there is a theme to The Forgotten Arm. The album’s songs follow a, forgive me, Anakin and Padmé like relationship of a drug addicted boxer and his lady love. (If you are a geek like me I trust that you will come up with your own bad Star Wars anaolgies here, including ones referencing lopped off limbs to match the album’s title). At the outset, in Virginia in the ’70s, the couple meet, but by the end they end up in Reno, their love in shambles. Mann, to give her credit, was not inspired by the upcoming Star Wars film, but rather albums like Elton John’s thematic Tumbleweed Connection and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, both released in 1971.
I’ve never really understood boxing as a sport. Two people beating on each other in a ring doesn’t appeal to me as a spectator, but it still retains a mystique and charm for a lot of people around the world. Called the `sweet science,’ I suppose that boxing has an appeal for a few major reasons. First, it’s an individual sport and those solo efforts seem to hold sway with some as being a `you against the world’ kind of dynamic. Second, there is no real equipment save for padded gloves (thank goodness, those old ones used to kill people), there are no balls, pucks, nets, bats or sticks. It’s simply one person against the other in fist combat. It can be easily interpreted that Mann, having left a band, striking out on her own as a solo artist, and fighting against two record companies for rights to her music, would have an affinity for the sport, and is maybe why she took it up herself. Ah, the subconscious!
Upon a cursory listen there is not a lot of difference between this new album and Mann’s previous solo work. Her voice is always measured and sweet, easily recognizable. Even though this album is not produced by Jon Brion, there are still the carnival-like pop harmonies, inflections and rhythms. But upon further closer review, there are some marked welcome differences. First is the production work of Joe Henry (she would have asked Butch Vig but his first name had five letters and the last name three, and that’s completely backwards!). Henry created for Mann what she wanted the album to sound like, namely Mott the Hoople meets alt-country. Henry most recently produced Ani DiFranco’s latest album, also a winner. Another difference is the inclusion of piano. Mann learned to play the piano and write songs on the instrument between Lost in Space and the frenzied pace of the recording of The Forgotten Arm. The result is a more fully formed collection of songs than she has ever written before.
The introductions to the characters and then the songs at the end of their relationship, being as they have the most emotional investment, are the best on the record. Opener “Dear John” and “Goodbye Caroline” have choruses that end up in your head while songs like “I Can’t Help You Anymore,” “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” and “Beautiful” are tinged with the melancholy needed for such a subject matter. The album’s title, incidentally, comes from a friend of Mann’s who boxes. He has a move called “The Forgotten Arm” where you get your opponent against the ropes, repeatedly hitting them with your left hand, saving the right for the unexpected uppercut. John and Caroline’s dissolution is caused by that `forgotten arm,’ the hidden and ignored things in life that rear their ugly heads when least expected. Bravo to Aimee Mann for continuing to write such poignant pop songs.
Elton John- The Tumbleweed Connection
Aimee Mann- Bachelor No.2
Natalie Merchant- The House Carpenter’s Daughter