I’m a huge Aimee Mann fan. Ever since I heard her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One” on the “Magnolia” soundtrack, I’ve been hooked. Her last album, Lost in Space, is fourth on my list of my favorite five albums of all time. Whenever I’m depressed and disillusioned with the world I put on her music, mostly because it too is depressed and disillusioned with the world.
Mann doesn’t lie to you like other songwriters. She doesn’t give you false hope or swear in the end that love will save the day. She just gives you the straight dope. Remember in “Magnolia” when all the characters sang along to Mann’s “Wise Up”? The chorus they kept repeating was, “It’s not going to stop / Until you wise up.” Which is what Mann’s music is all about: wising up. Wising up to the fact that life and love are not fairy tales and that the choices you make, no matter how well intentioned or pleasure-driven, have real and sometimes dangerous consequences. Basically, Mann rains on everyone’s parade, and folks like me can’t get enough of it.
So how come I don’t like Mann’s newest album, The Forgotten Arm, that much? Two reasons: John and Caroline, the two characters at the center of The Forgotten Arm, two of Mann’s lamest creations. The concept behind the album tells the story of John, an alcoholic Vietnam vet and professional boxer, and Caroline, a codependent floozy, who meet in Richmond, Va., at a state fair, fall in love, hit the road and then fall apart as John succumbs to alcoholism and Caroline realizes she can’t help him. Doesn’t that sound like the plot to a really bad road movie from the ’70s? I’m thinking James Caan as John and Cybill Shepherd as Caroline.
And to make matters worse, the lyric booklet is full of illustrations of John and Caroline by the artist Owen Smith, so the only way you can imagine the characters is the way Smith draws them. He draws John like Brando from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” all muscle shirts and tight jeans. There’s no way this is the sensitive soul Mann depicts in the lyrics.
Caroline is blond and big-bosomed with Angelina Jolie lips – exactly the sort of girl it’s hard to feel sorry for, especially when she’s na�ve enough to think she can cure someone’s alcoholism with a little TLC.
Though a talented artist, Smith completely ruins the listener’s ability to picture John and Caroline for themselves. Though Mann wants us to believe the story is happening in the 1970s, the characters Smith draws are straight out of a 1930s pulp comic.
Mann makes the mistake so many inexperienced authors make: Her characters are clich�s. There is not much distinctive about either John or Caroline. Besides being an alcoholic and an ex-boxer, we don’t find out much else about John. The only reference to him having been in Vietnam is a friend of his telling Caroline in “Dear John” that he thinks John might have died in Kuala Lumpur. And Caroline? She has no past, no discernible occupation and not even really any vices except for breaking men’s hearts. Which leads me to believe that Mann is, ambition-wise, in over her head. By trying to write an album that doubles as a novel, she sacrifices all the depth of plot and details that novels specialize in.
The Forgotten Arm feels shallow because Mann has bitten off more than she can chew.
This is not to say that there aren’t some really good songs on the album. The aforementioned “Dear John” is a pop gem, with a gorgeous middle eighth that’s had me humming the line “Once somebody stationed in Kuala Lumpur” over and over to myself. Other standout songs include “King of the Jailhouse,” “Going Through the Motions,” “Video” and “I Can’t Help You Anymore.”
Other reviews I’ve read have suggested that the songs have a ’70s soft rock feel to them, but I think they’re too overproduced to sound like anything that was on the radio before 1980. Granted, the songs on The Forgotten Arm aren’t as overproduced as past Mann albums, but they’re a long way from sounding like Wings or Jackson Browne.
Listening to The Forgotten Arm, I really wish Mann hadn’t been so ambitious. Even if she had just written an album of story-songs, each one with different characters and locales, I believe she could have made a brilliant album. But to take on the task of writing a novel-length story in LP format? Mann is talented, but not that talented. Even literary songwriters like Randy Newman or Paul Simon are smart enough to know they can’t write an entire album about just two characters, especially two as thin and boring as John and Caroline. I only hope Mann sees her folly and, for her fans’ sake, wises up.