by Erick Trickey
Aimee Mann named her new album The Forgotten Arm after a boxing move a friend taught her. Punch your opponent with one fist over and over, get him on the ropes, sagging, and a blow from your other, forgotten arm can finish him off. "The knockout punch is the one you never see coming," she explains.
That idea of the one-two punch explains her music's appeal. Mann has an uncanny talent for creating note-perfect, irresistible songs, yet she's drawn not to sweet sentiment, but to loneliness, failings, tragedy. She's an antipop pop singer, making beautiful the parts of life from which we usually shy away.
Consider her best-known songs. "Voices Carry," the one hit by her 1980s band 'Til Tuesday, about a woman silenced by a lover, stood out in 1985 as more desperate, sincere, lovely, and complex than most Top Forty radio. The nine songs she contributed to the 1999 movie Magnolia, and their companion piece, her 2000 solo album Bachelor No. 2, expressed the pain of being single, especially the film's breakout song, "Save Me," in which she pleaded to be rescued "from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they could never love anyone."
Bleak? Sure, but just quoting Mann's songs misses much of their appeal. I just read all the lyrics to The Forgotten Arm, and they're too sad to take on the page. The album is a song cycle about a boxer named John, or the King of the Jailhouse, and Caroline, the Queen of the Road, a woman he meets at a state fair. They take off in John's Cadillac, headed for Mexico, fleeing something they can't name, but they drift from a casino town to a hotel in Atlanta to John's father's basement as his addiction tears them apart.
But now I'm listening to the album, and when track 12 ends, I'm going back to the beginning. I want to hear the chorus to "Good-bye, Caroline" again, so I
can thrill to all the classic pop-song ingredients mixed together. "Good-bye, Caroline, you're my favorite faith healer," Mann sings, and I've heard people sing good-bye before, I've heard notes and melodies like these before, I've heard singers sing to women named Caroline before, but I've never heard a song's narrator sing to a faith healer, or sing to his lover and call her a faith healer, implying that deep down, he is singing good-bye to his faith in the healing power of her love.
Some or all of Mann's dates on this winter tour are acoustic shows, so she may not bring the band that gives The Forgotten Arm its ironically uplifting 1970s-roots-rock sound to the Michigan Theater on Saturday, February 4. But that'll just put more emphasis on Mann's melodies and her dark alto, which, much like that of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, is tough enough that you know she won't lie to you with a naively optimistic ballad, and soft enough that it can tremble with the beauty of her hard-won dignity.
[Review published February 2006]