Music From the Motion Picture Magnolia
Bachelor No. 2 (or, the Last Remains of the Dodo)
The whole thing is bizarre, really. Over the past decade, Aimee Mann has weathered professional ups and downs so dramatic and varied that she's probably just praying for a nice, quiet solo career where she can make a living making music. Instead, she's experienced dizzying highs -- universally-acclaimed albums, a high-profile single that piggybacked the Melrose Place phenomenon (the absolutely perfect "That's Just What You Are"), an Oscar nomination, poster-child status for the results of slash-and-burn record label greed -- and staggering lows -- the loss of not one but two labels, constant interference by music industry executives looking for a single, an album held hostage until the ransom came through, poster-child status for the results of slash-and-burn record label greed. This is a woman who, I gather, only wants to write and sing songs, and when she's even allowed to do that, chuckleheads like me come along and ruin it by endowing her every action with deeper meanings and motivations.
Luckily for Mann, one of those chuckleheads was Paul Thomas Anderson, who not only saw the problem but was almost uniquely equipped to do something about it. Being Mann's friend gave him access to a heap of unreleased songs; being an increasingly important filmmaker gave him a megaphone through which to shout them to the masses. And so came Magnolia the movie, which was written under the influence of Mann's music to such a degree that while you don't need to see the film to enjoy the soundtrack, I have a sneaking suspicion that the soundtrack is absolutely vital to the film. Magnolia has some of the most sympathetic interplay between on-screen action and the pop songs underlying it of any movie I've seen in years; Anderson realizes that a good soundtrack isn't just songs in the movie, it should be songs of the movie.
Magnolia the album meets that goal admirably, which is all the more astounding since the songs not only weren't written as a piece but come from many disparate phases of Mann's career, from the early, just-post-'Til-Tuesday demo of "Build That Wall" to bits and scraps of her (at the time) unreleased third record. Some of these songs have been released before; the sad and typically articulate "Wise Up" was previously on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack (which, interestingly, makes it the second time that it's been wrapped in Tom Cruise's face), and "One" comes from the 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute CD. Context is everything, though, and the spareness of "One," which stood out like a sore thumb amongst the big productions on the Nilsson disc, is much better served by being placed right at the start and setting the tone for the rest of the album. It's a perfect kickoff track, establishing a jarring tension (not least because it's a song that everybody knows, or thought they did) that isn't released until the galloping "Momentum" starts up immediately afterwards.
The funny thing is, Mann's not the only person on Magnolia, but she might as well be. Two songs by Supertramp speed by pleasantly enough (although I would have preferred "Take The Long Way Home" to "Goodbye Stranger," myself), as does a pop tune by Gabrielle and a snippet of Jon Brion's orchestral score. You'd never really know it, though; the album may as well end at Mann's "Save Me." Forever etched in my mind as the song which lost the Oscar to a Phil Collins tune that I'm not sure anybody even likes, "Save Me" is terrific, a desperate attempt at reaching out to someone most likely incapable of providing what the singer needs most, set to a descending bassline and warm but mournful electric guitars over a flat bed of sleepwalking acoustics. If you made it to the last scene of Magnolia (and I know there are many who did not), this was the song you heard under the (effectively) wordless final moments, summing up everything in the movie and propelling the narrative to a close as Melora Walters' Claudia does something we've desperately wanted her to do for the past three hours just before a sharp cut to black and the roll of the credits.
Mann's pleas to be saved "from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone" segue perfectly to the start of Bachelor No. 2 (or, the Last Remains of the Dodo). Beginning with a muffled electric guitar and a drum loop, the opening "How Am I Different?" is an astonishing opening salvo of complete distrust and self-loathing; when Mann asks the titular question of someone who appears to be everything she's been looking for, it's the cry of someone too burned by the process not to be suspicious when someone tells her exactly what she's been waiting to hear ("this show is too well-designed/too well to be held with only me in mind"). She might as well be asking, "What makes me so goddamn special?" with the implicit understanding that the answer is, "Nothing whatsoever." One can only imagine what hubby Michael Penn thought when he first heard the love of his life sing, "Just one question before I pack/When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?"
Married bliss, obviously, has absolutely no effect on Mann's ability to be forever disappointed by the gulf between the promise of romance and the reality, and thank God. While there's nothing here that's as devastating a kiss-off as "That's Just What You Are," Mann's outlook is far from peachy. The title of the fourth song, "The Fall Of The World's Own Optimist," would make a fine subsubtitle for the album, until you realize that Mann hasn't seen the glass as half full in a long time. Some of the more stunning moments on the album (and there are many, many of them) deal with utter resignation (both literal, as in the horn-inflected "Calling It Quits," and metaphorical, like the heartrending chorus of the delicate "Satellite") and terror in the face of extraordinary personal risk ("How Am I Different?" and "Deathly," the last verse of which contains one of the most astonishing lyrics Mann has written throughout a career of consistently astonishing lyrics).
The reason, I think, is that as Mann's personal fortunes improved, her professional fortunes took a huge hit, as she got caught up in a roster reshuffling following a corporate merger involving her now-former record label. They not only refused to release her album but wouldn't let her have her master tapes back for less than six figures, and from the evidence on Bachelor, it sounds like lucky-in-love Mann decided to replace one form of getting screwed with another. She's seemingly sublimated her frustrations with the music industry into her songs, recasting them for the most part as romantic parables and thus making them more universal (though keep in mind that her first solo record included a pair of great but highly personal songs ("I've Had It" and "Put Me On Top") about watching the business end of things destroy the making of music). This was a lot more obvious as an overall theme on the identically-titled 7-song preview EP that Mann self-released and sold at her shows last year; with the exception of "Just Like Anyone," a sad acoustic tribute to Jeff Buckley, every song on that CD could have been read as an angry letter to all those music executives who held her music hostage. When Mann sings, "So you're running 'round the parking lot/Til every lightning bug is caught/Punching some pinholes in the lid of a jar/While we wait in the car," I almost don't know what else she could be talking about except an A&R frenzy indulged by some label suits who don't know what to do with lightning-in-a-bottle once they've got it.
A little more fragmented than the preview disc, the full-length Bachelor strews a handful of the Magnolia tracks into the mix with a trio of unreleased songs (although it's important to remember that the songs that saw the light of day before now were actually pulled from Bachelor prematurely). Her sound has changed from previous albums; instead of the electric guitar blitzkriegs scattered throughout I'm With Stupid and "Whatever", she leans towards a more Bacharach-influenced, piano-based sound. That may be in no small part to the decreased involvement of longtime collaborator Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Macy Gray), who tended to play the part of demented-genius studio whiz. He's mostly absent throughout Bachelor; when a Brionic electric guitar pierces through the bridge of "How Am I Different?" (and "Save Me," which is, incidentally, not on Bachelor), I was surprised to learn that it's not him (though, to be fair, he's listed as a cowriter), as well as mightily relieved to hear just how much Mann still sounds like Mann.
If the little touches are still there, it's the overall Brion feel that's absent. Gone is the sense of manic sonic experimentation bubbling under on "Whatever" and boiling over on I'm With Stupid. Bachelor's subdued production (mostly by Mann but also by a number of others, Brion included) isn't as dynamic as what Mann's done in the past, which only makes this the least tactile of her albums. Mann compensates by resting the focus comfortably on her brilliant songs with their brilliant lyrics and her increasingly dextrous voice. My main complaint with Bachelor is my own fault, really. Having waited for new product from Mann for three years, I pounced on both the preview EP and Magnolia last fall. That meant that by the time it was released to the public, Bachelor already had a feel of lazy familiarity to me, which wasn't helped by the closing track, "You Do" (which, and I might be mistaken, may well be the first song she's written in the second person), being duplicated from Magnolia. As a stickler for proper track sequencing, I found it kind of an anticlimax that I'd already come across what should have been her final statement placed halfway through some other proceedings. It was kind of like already knowing the ending. But I'd already purchased a sampler CD with "It's Not Safe" months before it showed up as I'm With Stupid's final track, and I got over it. Given the choice, I'd rather have Aimee Mann on too many CDs than not enough. (MH)
(Reprise Records; SuperEgo Records -- http://www.superegorecords.com/)