Two lovers, John and Caroline, take a hazy journey across America on Aimee Mann’s new concept album The Forgotten Arm (SuperEgo). It’s a landscape populated with junkies, faith healers and fortunetellers. The album feels oddly second-hand, as if this is a story overheard from across a bar. The music, as well, is emotionally distant. The Forgotten Arm smolders but never catches fire.
On the opening song, “Dear John,” Caroline meets John at a state fair. Mann sings that “cotton candy was king / on the midway that spring,” and there is an innocence to the encounter even if the two lovers are less than pure. By the second song, “King of the Jailhouse,” Caroline and John have traveled through the country and crossed into Mexico. When Mann sings, presumably in the voice of Caroline, “there is something wrong with me,” the song could be heartbreaking if it weren’t so static.
“Goodbye Caroline” breaks through the fog of the opening tracks. It also highlights why the rest of the album feels stillborn. The song is soulful. An unadorned acoustic guitar strums the opening chords, providing breathing room in an album full of muddy arrangement that cling to the middle range. The band builds up steam and the energy level rises. “Going through the Motions” is also strong. A raspy drawl sings behind Mann on the chorus of this tension filled song. The lyrics tell of an addict fighting his disease in a straightforward manner rather than hiding in impressionist language.
Too many tracks that follow return to the plodding tempos and distant lyrics of the first two songs. There are highlights. “She Really Wants You” starts with a direct narrative that has strong forward motion. Mann begins “That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break Your Heart” with unadorned, majestic grace. When John promises to quit drugs in “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas,” the melody has a singsong quality that betrays the fact that he has made and broken this pledge before.
The best moments of The Forgotten Arm reveal that a better album is hidden underneath the surface. With more urgency, less emotional detachment, and a greater variety of tempos and arrangements this album could have been an epic. As it stands now, Mann’s concept album has some strong songs but doesn’t fully convince when played from the opening notes to end of the story.
Also posted at A Frolic of My Own.