AIMEE MANN: THE FORGOTTEN ARM (2005)
1) Dear John; 2) King Of The Jailhouse; 3) Goodbye Caroline; 4) Going Through The Motions; 5) I Can't Get My Head Around It; 6) She Really Wants You; 7) Video; 8) Little Bombs; 9) That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart; 10) I Can't Help You Anymore; 11) I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas; 12) Beautiful.
Every serious artist deserves a concept album, and who's more serious than Aimee Mann? The Forgotten Arm is a mini-musical (it's a bit too fragile and tender to be called a "rock opera") built around an imaginative story of an alcoholic boxer teaming up with a "white trash" girl and their futile attempts to battle their problems. The subject matter reflects Aimee's private fetishism (she's known for her own addiction to boxing), but, more importantly, it presents her as some sort of a female Bruce Springsteen, injecting herself into "other people's lives" and functioning as a self-appointed spokesman for the lower depths.
Whether this elevates her art or, on the contrary, makes it more cheap and superficial, is a useless question to discuss. The main problem, as far as I can see, is one that almost inevitably crops up on most concept albums: there's somewhat too much of the concept and somewhat less of creative songwriting. Of course, on the "positive" side, The Forgotten Arm is a more energetic album than Lost In Space: the tempos are generally faster, the guitars more prominent and crunchy, the morose depression reserved for just a few of the tunes, while the others are busy building up other kinds of atmosphere relevant to the story.
But on the "negative" side, too many of the songs do not register on my scale even after quite a few listens, and this is coming from someone who "got" Lost In Space not earlier than the fourth time around. This time, though, the subtleties just refuse to come out. It's mostly decent folk-rock — decent, but hardly magical. Aimee sings like she really means it — and, of course, she does mean it; it's her story, her message, her impersonations — but it is hard to get rid of the nagging feeling that the story comes first and the melody comes next. It is also not insignificant that in some recent interviews she'd also stated that the idea was to intentionally emulate the atmosphere of an early 1970s roots-rock album, to make something in the vein of The Band or Tumbleweed Connection; if so, she'd clearly paid more attention to the arrangements and "vibe" of it all than to the soul power of the notes themselves. The irony, of course, is that without great melodies, roots-rock arrangements only make the whole experience blander.
A typical example is 'Beautiful', the closing number that is supposed to wind things up on a generally optimistic note after the characters had been royally messing up their lives for the previous eleven tracks. Its chorus, as far as composition goes, is lazy: Aimee does change to her falsetto on the line 'why does it hurt me to feel so much tenderness?', but, as much as I adore her falsetto, the enchantment just doesn't work; the notes are clumsily strung together, there's no adequately harmonic effect, and nothing ends up registering in my head. Maybe it's not laziness; maybe it was an intentional wish to write something so discoherent (Carole King, who also had a song with the same title, not coincidentally used to write in the same manner, but somehow generally came out with better results). Yet this is pop music, after all, not opera, and I don't think we were supposed to judge The Forgotten Arm according to the criteria of Madame Butterfly in the first place.
Even the good choruses are lazy: 'That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart', 'I Can't Help You Anymore' and 'I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas' essentially make their points — three songs in a row! — by having their titles chanted over and over again. That's charming chanting, to be sure, but that's not enough for Aimee; I'm perfectly certain she could charm anyone by walking down the street and chanting random storefront signs if she wished to.
In the end, my favourite songs turn out to be exactly those two that had already been previewed on the live album: 'Going Through The Motions', since it's the power-poppiest number on the record, and 'King Of The Jailhouse', its direct opposite — a slow, lumbering piano ballad, densely saturated with fantastic vocal flourishes, maybe Aimee's greatest ever vocal performance that locks tenderness and desperation into a single tiny capsule and wedges it in the ear forever; the transition from the disturbed, panicky confession of 'Baby there's something wrong with me!..' to the quiet, submissive, but still achingly painful desperation of '...that I can't see...' literally takes my breath away every time I hear it (and it is repeated way more than just a few times, believe me). There's nothing on the album that reaches the same emotional heights even remotely. It is not excluded that these two songs were, in fact, the first that were written (given that they'd already appeared a year earlier) and the rest of the story "grew" around them in a progressively declining fashion.
Worst of all, I don't even "get" the story. I do not feel that Aimee succeeds in making these characters come alive. For all she's worth, she is still being Aimee Mann, and Aimee Mann is a person as much removed from an alcoholic boxer and his drugged-out girlfriend as she is from an Afghani shepherd. Am I wrong? If so, she is not trying too hard to change my opinion. It may even be an interesting story — in someone else's hands — but what I see is a smart, way too serious, way too sentimental, intelligent woman who'd rather be reading about the misfortunes of alcoholic boxers in the latest paperback than being able to live them out herself. In the end, I prefer to forget altogether that there is supposed to be some sort of story here — the whole thing comes across easier when you discard the conceptual trappings wholesale.
So, in the end, it is not easy to consider The Forgotten Arm a great success; it is easy to believe that Aimee has overreached a bit. Not that it spoils her reputation in any way, and it is still one of the sincerest and most impressive artistic statements of 2005 — or maybe even of the entire decade, which has been relatively scarce on honest, simple statements from intelligent people, and for that reason, thumbs up are guaranteed. But as far as rock operas/musicals go, it's certainly no Quadrophenia. And it is perhaps not a coincidence that Aimee, despite a certain amount of critical praise, has so far not ventured to repeat the attempt.