AIMEE MANN: MAGNOLIA SOUNDTRACK (1999)
1) One; 2) Momentum; 3) Build That Wall; 4) Deathly; 5) Driving Sideways; 6) You Do; 7) Nothing Is Good Enough; 8) Wise Up; 9) Save Me; 12) Dreams [by Gabrielle]; 13) Magnolia [by Jon Brion].
This is that rare example of a movie soundtrack that stands well on its own terms — a fairly appropriate instance, too, since the battalions of admirers and haters of Magnolia the movie and Magnolia the soundtrack intersect, but do not overlap. I feel very fortunate, therefore, that I can safely state: I admire the movie — one of the bravest and quite hard-hitting in its bravery epic creations of the 1990's — and I think its soundtrack fits its atmosphere perfectly. Not only that, but the movie's wide-reaching goals almost certainly help Aimee overcome her own artistic limitations and finally match her exciting, moving music to broader themes than relationships fucked up for no apparent reason other than that relationships have to be fucked up, or else what sort of fucking relationships are they?
Maybe the four-year break in recording helped, too: the eight originals, plus Aimee's cover of Harry Nilsson's 'One', are all stunning — not a single melody fails to stir up feelings (one semi-exception is the instrumental 'Nothing Is Good Enough', which works much better with vocals on Bachelor No. 2 — not that the slow, hypnotic keyboard-and-strings-driven waltz isn't delightful on its own, but she must sing!).
Few things are more tragic to savour in the soul than one's own loneliness, and unless our genes somehow fail to elevate us to the level of Homo sapiens sapiens, we all feel this sometimes. That's what the movie was about; and this is why, not coincidentally, the soundtrack album opens with 'One' — for all I know, One could have been the title of the album. Inability to be understood is an integral part of a broken relationship (the other integral part of it is, of course, inability to cope with the inability of being understood), so it is quite a smooth and unbroken current that carries you from superficial whining about your messed up life into the deep sea of realizing there must be more serious, and more scary, reasons that underlie this mess. So, if Whatever and I'm With Stupid were basically bitter, but still shiny, pop, this soundtrack is gloomy and hopeless from the beginning to the end (even more hopeless than the movie, which still offered some sort of redemption from the nightmare — but that was actually its weakest part).
'One' is a cover that achieves perfection — it is somewhat over-arranged compared to Nilsson's intentionally minimalistic performance, but even its over-arranged details preserve the spirit of the original. 'Wise Up', reflecting a climactic moment in the movie, is one of the bitterest, most heart-breaking songs of the decade, where both the lyrics and the music basically just tell you that the only way out of your misery is to accept it as something natural and inescapable: 'it's not going to stop, it's not going to stop till you wise up... so just give up'. But it isn't presented as an optimistic conclusion — right on its heels comes 'Save Me', where Aimee implores to 'save me, save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone'. Uh?
Musically, the songs here completely drop the grungy wall-of-sound of the last album and are much more accessible to the "general pop audiences", which is perhaps natural since such was the intention of the movie as well, but I do not see that as a problem as long as the melodies are wonderful, and they are. Most are propelled by pianos rather than guitars, but there's still room for the usual highly melodic guitar solo on songs like 'Deathly' and 'Driving Sideways', and 'Momentum' nibbles a bit at free-form jazz before settling into normalness.
The only weakness of the record is that it is, after all, a soundtrack, and so, as a completely unnecessary bonus, we get two well-known Supertramp tunes, Jon Brion's instrumental 'Magnolia' theme (yawn), and Gabrielle's 'Dreams', a song that plays an important role in the movie but is otherwise a cheap dance-pop throwaway. Also, four out of nine songs were later reused by Aimee on her next solo album, which might make the buyer loath to own both records — but that is rather a weakness of Bachelor No. 2 than its predecessor. The predecessor hits so hard that it would be unimaginable it could fail to make Aimee Mann a household name, and, of course, it did, and quite deservedly so. Thumbs up for one of the most perfect combinations of artistic growth and commercial success in recent — and generally quite pitiful — history.