No singer/songwriter bums out more beautifully than Aimee Mann. Since her early days fronting ’Til Tuesday, she’s lanced every painful carbuncle on the dark side of romance while administering megadoses of pop narcotic. With each new batch of transcendent downers, she manages to become more and more herself, an unabashed classicist and classic depressive who major-to-minors her way to bittersweet, Beatlesesque bliss. It would be unfair to say that Mann repeats herself — isn’t that true of any artist with a distinctive style? — but her aesthetic template has remained the same for the past couple of decades. Those in search of rump-shakers and certified party-starters should look elsewhere, because Mann, bless her gigantic broken heart, won’t deliver. She named her record label Superego, remember, not Id.
The Forgotten Arm, Mann’s fifth solo release, is a collection of dysfunctional love songs. The same could be said of her previous records, of course, but here the familiar subject matter is presented from a different angle: the time-honored concept-album conceit. The CD’s dozen story-songs follow a more-or-less linear narrative about a junkie boxer and the woman whose love can’t save him from himself. (In case you’re tempted to interpret the songs as confessional, the lyric booklet contains the standard disclaimer: “The characters and events portrayed in this book are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, or similar situations, is coincidental.”) Escape, both literal and figurative, is Mann’s great theme, the source of all her best metaphors, and the album’s road-tripping protagonists, John and Caroline, are only the latest iterations of this idea. They meet, fall in love, take off, commit various acts of codependency, fall apart, and come together again (well, sort of — Mann doesn’t really do happy endings). The plot is almost dopily simple, especially by concept-album standards, but it focuses the songwriting, freshens the details, and gives old tropes a novel punch.
The record offers a few other surprises. Producer Joe Henry steered clear of the baroque ornamentation and meticulous overdubs that characterized Mann’s previous work with Jon Brion and Michael Lockwood. Instead, he had her record the whole thing in five days, almost entirely live and with a new band (including keyboardist Jebin Bruni, Sheryl Crow alum Jeff Trott on guitar, and bassist Paul Bryan). The sound, which Mann has described as “Mott the Hoople meets alt-country,” has a dreamy, dated quality, with ’70s rock guitars and the extreme stereo panning of a Beatles album. Although the arrangements are undeniably pretty in their own right, their best attribute may be their unobtrusiveness, the way they let Mann’s silken alto dominate the mix. It’s a gorgeous smear of a voice, breathy and a little ragged at the high end, dark and thrummy toward the bottom, and it’s nice to hear it nearly naked for a change.
The highlight of any Aimee Mann album, however, is the songwriting, and The Forgotten Arm is no exception. “The King of the Jailhouse,” a sweet Muscle Shoals shuffle with yearning boy/girl harmonies, slide guitar, and a killer horn hook, is a study in languorous soul. “She Really Wants You” pairs a lilting vocal melody with glorious McCartneyish bass runs, and “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” fulfills the promise of its title. But it’s the closing track, with its buzzy guitar, chiming piano, and reckless generosity, that lands the knockout blow: “Sometimes it hurts me to feel so much tenderness,” Mann sings in a frayed falsetto. “Beautiful — I wish you could see it, too — baby, how I see you.”