CD Review of The Forgotten Arm by Aimee Mann
Aimee Mann:
The Forgotten Arm

Reviewed by David Medsker


he Forgotten Arm is both an unquestionably definitive Aimee Mann album, yet an equally contradictory one. Mann recorded the entire album with producer Joe Henry (a guy Madonna calls ‘cousin’) in five days, something that would have been unheard of during the Jon Brion administration. And yet, the album is shockingly familiar to Whatever, Mann’s first post-‘Til Tuesday effort. Where her last album, Lost in Space, was focused on atmosphere, The Forgotten Arm has its eye on the plot. That’s right, Mann has made a concept album.

Which is not to say that she jumped completely out of her skin to come up with the story line. It’s the early ‘70s, and John, a former Vietnam vet and current boxer and drug addict, meets Caroline, a southern belle, at a fair in Virginia. Together, they take a road trip across the country, hoping to leave their bad luck behind them. There is little doubt as to how the story ends, but that hardly matters. What matters is the journey, and Arm is the most energetic trip Mann’s taken since 1996’s I’m With Stupid.

It is indicative of Mann’s warped sense of humor that the album start with a song called “Dear John.” It is filled with the kind of rose-colored optimism that desperate people cling to. “When I saw you in the ring on the lawn / Dear John / Blowing kisses so Richmond’s unfortunates can go on.” There are entire textbooks of psychoanalysis in these three lines. Caroline talks like someone who deserves better, even though she really doesn’t, and she finds her salvation in the last guy who could possibly save her.

In fact, John admits this in so many words later, on “I Can’t Help You Anymore.” But for now, things are rosy while they’re preparing to head across the country. “Goodbye Caroline” finds John hopeful, for the first time in a while, that he’ll get things back on track.

The euphoria doesn’t even make it to the next song; in “Going Through the Motions,” Caroline’s first words are “something isn’t right.” She goes into more depth on “Little Bombs,” realizing that “life just kind of empties out / Less a deluge than a drought / Less a giant mushroom cloud / Than an unexploded shell.” Mann’s always been one of the deadliest lyrical sharpshooters around, but she’s more economical this time around, hitting her target but using half as many arrows.

The most notable aspect to The Forgotten Arm isn’t even the subject matter, but the instrumentation. Mann’s made an alt-country record, one that captures the period of the piece (think Tumbleweed Connection) but also holds its own against modern day alt-country gods like Sun Volt, Wilco (pre-drugs) and the Jayhawks. It’s the kind of album that Mann and Brion could have made ten years ago, but only if you had tied one of Brion’s hands behind his back.

The Forgotten Arm was an important album for Mann. Lost in Space was a nice detour, but had she continued in that direction, it could have been, well, deathly. Instead, she made an album that mixes the songwriting approach of her earlier work with the sonic approach of her recent work. Thankfully, Mann is Lost no more.

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