Joan Anderman—currently working on a book and web project about creativity and aging at middlemojo.com and former pop music critic at The Boston Globe—on Aimee Mann who performs in Zankel Hall on January 28.
The best singer-songwriters are sneaks. They ply us with ringing guitars, soften us up with hooks and harmonies, and slip in the syringe. The needle is filled with venom or truth serum or toxic love potion, and Aimee Mann wields it like a surgeon. Or an addict. Precise. Unflinching. Pop tunes are the medium, but lucidity is the drug, delivered by a devoted surveyor of the tangled arteries, frayed connections, and invisible fractures that fan out across the human condition.
Addiction is one of Aimee’s favorite metaphors. “You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet” goes the opening line of “Save Me,” which was integrated along with seven Aimee Mann songs in the film Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson says that Aimee’s music was the inspiration for the movie, and it’s no wonder. In 14 words, she sketches a damaged life and doomed relationship. Aimee brandishes a mastery of economy to put the rest of us writers on alert: This is how it’s done.
This is also how it’s done: Spend a decade as the ball in a game of record-company roulette, extricate yourself from the clutches of a corporate behemoth, take creative and financial control of your career, and become a poster girl for thoughtful artists who don’t write hit singles. Sense of humor is optional—and righteous. If you’ve seen the Portlandia episode where Aimee guest stars as herself working as a maid because the music business is going down the drain, you’ve had a taste of this sober songwriter’s surprising embrace of comedy.
Her songs are made of surprising contrasts, too. They’re cutthroat and refined, brainy and poignant, sardonic and heartfelt. I think that’s what really sends me about Aimee Mann: In her consummate craftsmanship, she’s both poet and intellectual, offering sharp analysis from a cool remove while making us feel the pain.
“Life just kind of empties out / Less a deluge than a drought / Less a giant mushroom cloud / Than an unexploded shell / Inside a cell / Of the Lennox Hotel,” she sings in “Little Bombs,” a cut from her 2005 concept album The Forgotten Arm. The album is about a troubled couple on the bumpy road to wherever it is people wind up, and Aimee is turning it into a theatrical production. It’s a logical next move for an artist endowed with the full power of words and music, and good news for the drifters, seekers, misfits, and freaks (i.e. me and you and everyone we know) who like the idea of leaving the theater humming, but also thinking and most of all marveling—with the help of a gifted tour guide—at the complicated business of living.
Related: January 28, Aimee Mann