Copyright 2000 The New Yorker

The New Yorker
June 12, 2000, pgs 100-102

Length: 1,638 words
Section: The Critics: Pop Music
Headline: "It's A Mann's World: Melodies for a darker mood"
Byline: Nick Hornby

Every month, on a page entitled "All Back to My Place," the English rock magazine Mojo asks two or three celebrities about their listening habits. It's an unmissable feature - surely everyone wants to know what Spike Lee's favorite album is (it's a toss-up between "Innervisions" and "What's Going On"), or what Sporty Spice sings in the shower (her own songs, as it happens). This month, Ron Mael, from the campy and slightly annoying seventies art-rock band Sparks, answers the question "What music are you currently grooving to?" thus:

Grooving may not be the most precise definition of my connection to my current musical choices since grooving is usually reserved for pop music and it's quite evident that quality pop music is among the dearly departed. So I'm currently "grooving" to Duke Ellington's "Live at Newport," Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet"...

The view is not uncommon, particularly among erstwhile pop musicians of a Certain Age, who seem to have abandoned rock and roll and taken up jazz, or classical music, for reasons I can only guess at. Prokofiev! Ellington! Take that, Hanson and Wu-Tang Clan fans! (One feels an irresistible urge to point out that, even if pop music is "among the dearly departed," Russian Romanticism isn't really happening right now, either.) But if Mr. Mael's view means anything at all, it must be in its assumption that pop music is dead in the way that fiction is supposed to be dead - that both have been superseded by new technologies or by other art forms. Nobody sees pop music (or fiction) as tools of the revolution; no one expects them to change the world.


Meanwhile, good, talented musicians continue to make albums that people continue to listen to, and good, talented authors continue to write novels that people continue to read. In the last few months, there has been terrific new music by the Eels, Kelis, Angie Stone, Neal Casal, Magnetic Fields, Michael Penn, Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, Josh Rouse ... For the most part, this is unshowy, old-fashioned verse/chorus/verse music, the kind the Beatles or Marvin Gaye or Jackson Browne used to make. All that's missing is the shock of the new - a significant absence, admittedly, but then, if the guitar-based three-minute song is to survive, there is bound to be a period like this one, when it just settles into its skin and becomes a means of expression like any other.

The trouble is that pop doesn't know how to sell itself in this way. Aimee Mann is a fine, occasionally brilliant singer-songwriter, nothing more, nothing less, and this plainness of purpose has cost her dearly over the last fifteen, mostly calamitous, years. During the first stage of her career, her band, 'Til Tuesday, had only one hit, the very eighties synthpop tune "Voices Carry." She hated it, took over the band and, in then making two wonderful Beatles-tinged pop-rock records, "Welcome Home" and "Everything's Different Now" (both bombed), drove it into oblivion. There was then a five-year hiatus before she produced her first solo album, "Whatever," but just as it was released her record company lost its major distributor; she transferred to Geffen, but it was soon taken over by Seagram, and she ended up having to buy her new recordings back. This resulted in yet another gap, of three years, before the next album. Mann has felt bitter and cursed, and many of her songs are expressions of anger at the music business executives who, she believes, have hampered her career. "All you wanna do is something good," she sang on the last track of her 1996 solo album, "I'm With Stupid" (the title was itself a sly dig at her employers), "So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood. / 'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world?" Self-pity has rarely sounded so attractive.

Part of Mann's trouble is that, though she writes her own songs and sings them, she is not what we've come to expect a female singer-songwriter to be. She plays guitar, not piano, but she is not one of the lads, like Sheryl Crow; she is outspoken rather than introspective, which means she has little in common with the Carole King school; and she is much too grown-up and circumspect to want to bare her pain in the way that Tori Amos and Fiona Apple do. Earth mother, rocker, fruitcake - these are the jobs rock music has for white adult women at the moment, and as Mann has shown no interest in applying for any of them (she's had her eye on Paul McCartney's nice, comfortable office for some time), she has found herself marginalized.

Now, suddenly, life is looking up, thanks in no small measure to Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of "Magnolia," who built a couple of the movie's set pieces around Mann's music, wrote dialogue from the opening couplet of one of her songs, and then handed the soundtrack album over to her. In the liner notes, he explains how, in making the movie, he merely "sat down to write an adaptation of Aimee Mann songs." Mann was not, it turned out, as unrecognized and undervalued as she had believed; indeed, she was nominated for an Oscar this year. (She didn't win, of course. Phil Collins did - a hilarious instance of cloth-eared injustice, which is good news for those who love Mann's brand of exquisitely tuneful complaint.) Right on the heels of the "Magnolia" soundtrack, she has another album - like London buses, you wait for three years and two turn up at once. "Bachelor No. 2" was to have been available only on the Internet (such modest hopes being typical of Mann's despair), but the renewed interest in her work is so great that you can now walk into a record store and buy it. What have things come to when the ability to purchase a CD over the counter by one of American's sparkiest musical talents is a cause for celebration?

"Bachelor No. 2" is Mann's strongest collection to date: there are at least half a dozen songs that will wriggle themselves into the part of your brain reserved for tune storage and stay there for many months. Only one, "Nothing Is Good Enough," seems to deal directly with her professional traumas ("Critics at their worst / could never criticize / the way that you do / No, there's no one else, I find / to undermine or dash a hope / quite like you"), but her bleak and bracing cynicism about our ability to connect with fellow-humans remains gratifyingly intact. "Satellite," a beautiful, tired waltz that echoes James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," begins with the line "Let's assume you were right," and you can almost hear the strain in her voice: in Mann's world, other people are very much in the wrong. The first lines of "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" ("There's no charity in you / and that surprises me"), and of "It Takes All Kinds" ("As we were speaking of the devil / you walked right in / Wearing hubris like a medal") reinforce the impression that Mann's arguments are geometrically unique in possessing only one side.

There are some people who are irritated by Mann's self-righteous sense of grievance - Greil Marcus recently described her as "still whining after all these years" - but it seems to me that pop music, unlike the music of its elders and betters, is able to provide something for every undignified mood. If Mann's songs are whiny, well, who doesn't feel like whining sometimes? (And Heaven knows they're not the only ones - what is Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" but one long, glorious unresolved moan?) Granted, if you could have only one album a year, and the musician who made it had to be democratically elected, you'd probably feel obliged to vote for someone with a sunnier, more emotionally generous disposition than Mann's. But there isn't only one album a year; there are thousands, and most of them are much less rich and thoughtful than this one.

What makes listening to "Bachelor No. 2" such a treat is Mann's sinuous, Burt Bacharach-like melodies and her verbal facility. "Ghost World" has the kind of lyrics that people don't write very often: simple, direct, sweet, resonant - in other words, proper lyrics, instead of tenth-rate poetry. "Finals blew, I barely knew my graduation speech / With college out of reach / If I don't find a job it's down to Dad and Myrtle Beach," runs the first verse; I've read entire first novels that cover similar territory less effectively. (The song, an achingly pretty lament for a nothing-happening teenage summer, also offers a respite from all the typical Mann finger-pointing.) "Red Vines," meanwhile, is this year's great lost radio hit. It has everything: a gorgeous, understated guitar intro, a swooping and memorable chorus, a preposterously cute piano outro. The epic "Deathly," which will be familiar to those who already own the "Magnolia" soundtrack (there are a couple of crossovers), is the closest Mann comes to musical grandiosity: Michael Lockwood's almost hymnal guitar solo is the aural equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson's plague of frogs - mighty, savagely beautiful, and somehow redemptive.

"The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" was co-written with Elvis Costello, who shares Mann's interest in the craft of the song, and who has had his own travails with record companies as of late. It seems strange that people like Mann and Costello (whose last studio album was a collaboration with Bacharach) should find themselves huddled together for warmth in this way, when all they appear to want is to write classic, essentially mainstream pop. Who would have though that music like this would become alternative, when it doesn't have an alternative bone in its body? "Bachelor No. 2" is exhilarating proof that there's lots of life in the old dog yet.

Submitted by: Lauren Phillips