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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Aimee Mann: Lost In Space


1) Humpty Dumpty; 2) High On Sunday 51; 3) Lost In Space; 4) This Is How It Goes; 5) Guys Like Me; 6) Pavlov's Bell; 7) Real Bad News; 8) Invisible Ink; 9) Today's The Day; 10) The Moth; 11) It's Not.

The lyrics get really dense on this album. The subjects are the same, but she's learned to present the message under a thick layer of metaphors, allusions, allegories, and red herrings — perhaps that's an inevitable result of working together with the likes of Costello. Like all of us, she is hu­man, of course, and so cannot escape an occasionally painful cliché ( 'The moth don't care when he sees the flame, he might get burned, but he's in the game' makes for a nice rhyme, but isn't it inexcusable to still go on writing about moths and flames in the XXIst century?), but most of the time, she steers her verbal ship with an ever increasing level of self-confidence.

But I will do Lost In Space an injustice if I concentrate on its lyrics. When you have a record that is heavy on the words and subtle on melody, it's a very natural temptation — but it has to be avoi­ded, since it gives a distorted picture of one's true impressions. Many people have commented on the album's 'maturity', not always taking it for a good sign; many have acknowledged that, as Aimee gets more and more skilled at poetry (or in 'verbosity', if you want to see it that way), she is neglecting melody — where 'melody' is understood as 'energy'. That was also my own original impression: Lost In Space took somewhat more time to sink in than anything that preceded it. Chances are this will be your impression, too. Well, fight it. Give it another chance. It isn't a fast-going record, and unless you're in a major hurry to get somewhere, you should lower your own speed so as not to get too far ahead of it where you can no longer discern its beauty.

It's just that Aimee Mann is a total introvert, and as she gets older and left with less and less to prove, her introvert nature takes major hold of her. You'd think that the settling of her legal and personal problems would eventually cause her to brighten and lighten up, but guess again: Lost In Space is even more somber and dreary in tone than the Magnolia soundtrack. There are no bright, shiny pop-rockers whatsoever on this album; most, if not all, of the songs are in a minor key, many feature lonesome, depressed acoustic passages, the guitar solo breaks range from omi­nous to creepy, and the only reason the whole thing does not want to make you kill yourself on the spot is that it's never intended to: for all of Aimee's bitterness and disillusionment (or, rather, "un-illusionment" — "dis-" would imply that she once had illusions, but I've always thought she had already experienced her first nervous breakdown in the womb), she's never suicidal about it.

Therefore, do not dive into this expecting crunchy power-pop riffs and youthful ecstasy. After all, she's almost 40 here, and no one ever saw her give the AC/DC pledge of eternal youth. Lost In Space is experienced best of all in a situation where you're really lost in space, so if you're step­ping out of your shuttle suspended on a fragile string, don't forget to pack an Ipod with this record — wonderful way to enjoy your last half-hour of living. However, in the likely event of your not being able to either reproduce or simulate this situation, a decent alternative is to save it up for a quiet evening after a whole day of nerve-wrecking problems. I happened to catch this particular situation exactly, and in the process it made me a better man, or at least I'd like to think so.

Now, I promised I'd be talking about the music rather than the lyrics, but it's also pretty hard. As usual, Aimee does not shower you with hooks; she has this strict ratio of one hook per good song and two hooks per masterpiece, which makes all the songs seem slightly overlong (five minutes for 'Invisible Ink'? what is this — Emerson, Lake & Palmer?), but also helps her, I think, to stay so impressively consistent over decades. That said, she does strictly adhere to this rule, and each song on the album has something to say, and I find no truly weak spots.

But even more impres­sive than the hooks are the arrangements and the moods they create. 'Hum­p­ty Dumpty' is warm autumn, with its growling electric guitars and acoustic jangle; the title track is winterish, with falling-snow electric organ and the deep gritty grumble of the chorus; and 'The Moth', true to its trite, but fun lyrics, gives you deep night with candles... and the rest are perhaps just different shades of the same autumnal, winterish, and nocturnal landscapes. Even the laziest songs are all soaked in this somber vision so much they're at least evocative — 'Today's The Day', for instance, has a quasi-musical box-style chiming guitar arrangement that gives it the required mystery aura.

Above all, you do get this feeling of being completely stranded: Lost In Space com­pletes the process of converting a lively, still very much out-of-this-world Aimee Mann into somebody from a faraway planet, unable to understand or to be understood. If you find this offensive for the tastes of humanity, feel free to draw the line. I find this honest, and far more sincere, mature, and hard-hitting than ninety nine percent of "depressing" shit-music that is being made today by youn­ger and simpler minds. And what began as an intellectual delight for the brain ends up being, if not the heart's favourite, then at least the heart's special Aimee Mann album. Thumbs up for all the beautiful melodies — and more thumbs up for all the darkness.

PS. If you can get it, the expanded 2-CD deluxe edition is highly recommendable; not so much for the bunch of live performances (Aimee's limitations as a live performer will be discussed in the next review) as for four B-sides and outtakes that are just as good as any of the eleven songs on the album proper, especially the baroque harpsichord-and-strings gorgeousness of 'Nightmare Girl' and the pop-rocker 'Observatory' — the latter adds a wee bit of fresh, upbeat liveliness to the rigid solemnity of it all.

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