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Creative writing students are often told, “Write what you know.”
So when Aimee Mann, one of pop music’s most literary songwriters, released a concept album telling the story of a drug-addicted boxer, it struck the uninitiated as a little bizarre – perhaps even a little far-reaching.
But for Mann, the former lead singer of the 80s band ‘Til Tuesday, the story is not as much of a stretch as one might think. The character of John was inspired by a real-life friend of Mann’s, and Mann even boxes herself. In fact, the title of Mann’s latest album, “The Forgotten Arm,” was taken from a boxing move her friend described to her.
“My friend who boxes has this move he was showing me and his name for it is ‘The Forgotten Arm.’ It’s like when you have someone on the ropes and you’re hitting with your left hand and you have your other hand between the two of you and your opponent forgets about the right arm, so you can bring it in for an uppercut,” Mann says. “To me it’s about the fact that the knockout punch is always the one you never see coming.”
The resulting album is 2005’s critically acclaimed “The Forgotten Arm,” her fifth studio album and her first since 2002’s “Lost In Space.” The album loosely chronicles the story of John and Caroline.
“The guy’s a Vietnam vet and a boxer, but he’s also a drug addict, and she’s trying to get away from the dead-end world where she lives in the South,” Mann explains. They run off together and wind up in a casino town, like Reno or Vegas. They meet at the Virginia State Fair, where, being from Virginia, I spent a lot of time. I pictured it taking place in the early 70s, during my own experience at the state fair at that time – you know, that kind of white trashy redneck factor which I have a real weakness for.”
The story’s era is reflected in the music on the album as well. Mann cites influences like The Band, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Mott the Hoople. Mann recorded the album almost entirely live in the studio with producer Joe Henry, who was also at the helm of Ani Difranco’s last record.
That’s not to say Mann fans will find much of a departure from her signature style – nor should a concept album revolving around such a depressing storyline come as a surprise. After all, Mann’s most well known for her contribution to the film “Magnolia,” where her haunting song of psychological struggle, “Wise Up,” marks the film’s most striking scene.
Dave Sims, in Paste magazine, wrote of Mann, “Given her obsession with the human psyche’s remarkable complexity, the conclusion Mann reaches time and time again is morose and simplistic: all of us are too screwed up to make meaningful connections with other human beings.”
Though the songs don’t stand alone as well as Mann’s “Magnolia” offerings, “The Forgotten Arm” offers plenty of sad-bastard anthems like “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas,” “Video,” and, the album’s crowning sad jewel, “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart.”
“So, like a ghost in the snow, I’m getting ready to go,” Mann sings over sparse piano. “Because baby, that’s all I know – how to open the door. And though the exit is crude, it saves me coming unglued.”
The metaphorical gloves, as they say, are off. And Mann is very much on.