Ring of Fire

Aimee Mann tells the story of an addict boxer and a girl, and how it all falls apart

Singer and songwriter Aimee Mann is no newcomer to the concept album thing, nor to inventive, narrative songwriting. Her songs made up the majority of the soundtrack to the 1999 film Magnolia, but instead of the songs being about the movie, the movie was about the songs. 2000's Bachelor No. 2 and 2002's Lost in Space continued her Lennon and McCartney-esque songs of melancholy.

Her new record, The Forgotten Arm (Superego), is the story of John and Caroline, two American kids growing up in the heartland in the '70s. John's a boxer; Caroline's a nice girl from Richmond, and they run away to a casino town, only to have everything fall apart due to John's drug addiction. The songs tell more than just John and Caroline's story, though--they explore the emotional complexities and struggles of addiction, set to a '70s-style rock soundtrack.

The title of the record comes from Mann's recent delve into boxing, the forgotten arm being the arm that seems to come out of nowhere and smack you in the face.

"I don't think it's really a term you would come across in boxing," said Mann from her studio in California. "I have a friend who is a boxer who uses creative terms to describe certain aspects, and I thought it was an interesting-sounding term that would fit in with the concept of the album."

Like the forgotten arm, Mann wanted to explore "addiction as another hidden member of the relationship that shows itself" and ultimately destroys the relationship; this is the theme that links the songs together. There is no real narrative arc or linear progression other than that. The album begins with Caroline remembering when she first saw John at a state fair, and it's clear the relationship is already on its last legs: "The midway I knew, where the sky was so blue with the memory of you, is gone," sings Mann on "Dear John." "King of the Jailhouse" is a snapshot of John and Caroline in the car on the way out of town, their hopes high, but with a sense of foreboding present: Mann sings on the chorus, "There's something wrong with me that I can't see." "Video" has John struggling with his demons--"Like a building that's been slated for blasting, I'm the proof that nothing is lasting"--and "I Can't Help You Anymore" is Caroline realizing she can't save him: "I'll get a pen and make a list, and give you my analysis, but I can't write this story with a happy ending."

All the while, the music glides by with sparkling piano and buttery guitar riffs, and the songs become not so much sad as wistfully nostalgic, wishing for a time when perhaps the addiction hadn't reared its ugly head, or for some form of redemption. The Forgotten Arm was recorded in five days with Joe Henry, a singer and songwriter himself. "We recorded the band pretty much live," said Mann, and it shows; the organs and guitars blend together and help to create that sunny gleam of the kind of '70s music Mann was trying to re-create as the background for John and Caroline's saga.

"I really wanted the record to have a ... feel of an era," said Mann, and it does. The grooves are catchy, the melodies midtempo, and despite the conceptual nature of the album, it seems to offer Mann much more flexibility. Her songs, while still sounding like Aimee Mann songs, are richer and even more well-crafted than on her past albums. "Sometimes, I think limitations give you more freedom," said Mann.

The Forgotten Arm is definite proof of Mann's ability to use a concept as a springboard for dramatic songwriting that could be the soundtrack for a whole new film, Magnolia-style.

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