Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Aimee Mann's "The Forgotten Arm"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a little earlier this evening:

Review Summary: A touching musical story about an up-and-down relationship between two likable outcasts.

Last year, I reviewed Aimee Mann's most recent album Mental Illness (2017), a musically stark effort with songs mostly built around the acoustic guitar. Today, I'm going to write about a very different kind of Aimee Mann album, 2005's The Forgotten Arm. It's an LP that is brighter musically, but much bleaker thematically (although it does end on a ray of hope).

The Forgotten Arm is a concept album that tells a story in a series of vignettes. It's the tale of John and Caroline, two broken people who meet at the Virginia State Fair in the early 1970s, and run off together in the hopes that "sharing the burden will lighten the load." John is a sometime-boxer and a Viet Nam veteran who has come back from the war with demons and addictions. Caroline is a drifter, a marginal person who tends to run at the first sign of trouble. Together, they take off across the country in an old Cadillac, and we follow the highs, the lows and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. 

Clearly, this isn't a chucklefest. What makes it not only bearable, but actually moving, is Mann's understanding of her characters, and her empathy for the way that life grinds them down. The boxer theme is important, as the concept of the "forgotten arm" refers to a phenomenon where a fighter is repeatedly hurt with a series of jabs coming from one arm so as to get so involved with the need to block them that he forgets entirely about the other one. This "forgotten arm" eventually unleashes a blow that flies past his defenses and devastates him. As you probably guessed, it's a metaphor. (Mann was a boxing enthusiast at the time, and the LP actually won a Grammy Award for the album art, which featured a series of boxing sketches throughout the booklet.)

The heart of [i]The Forgotten Arm[i] can be found within its second song, "The King of the Jailhouse". It's a slow, mournful, piano-based number with a heartbreaking chorus, as John confesses to the sleeping Caroline, "Baby, there's something wrong with me/That I can't see." Mann's voice has never been richer than it is on this track, or more poignant.

The story can be a little confusing at times -- because Mann is the sole vocalist, it's not always clear which character is singing which track. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that Caroline gets to know John well enough that she can see he is going to relapse before he's aware of it himself ("Going Through the Motions"); John tries unsuccessfully to rehab ("I Can't Get My Head Around It"); and eventually, Caroline reverts to form and runs ("I Can't Help You Anymore"). The last song on the album makes it seem as though many years later, John has overcome his problems, and he and Caroline find their way back to one another ("Beautiful"). But honestly, I've always felt that perhaps this was a fantasy ending, and that maybe Mann came to care about her two flawed lovers so much that she just couldn't stand to give them the more probable tragic ending they were always headed towards. Because, as she explained a few songs earlier, "(That's how) I knew this story would break my heart".

For awhile, Mann and Ted Leo were working on the possibility of turning The Forgotten Arm into a Broadway musical. They even had some discussions about it with a respected Broadway producer. Then Rocky: The Musical hit Broadway in 2012, and it was decided all around that the chances of two boxing-themed musicals making it to The Great White Way anytime within the same decade of one another was unlikely, so the project was suspended. Even so, this is my favorite of Aimee Mann's solo albums, and that's saying a lot. I give it three-and-a-half stars for the songs, and an extra half-star for the sympathetic characters and the ability to pull off the overall concept.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars