Chapter and verse
August 2, 2006
For “Magnolia,” the ambitious and accomplished 1999 film of grief and redemption, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson enlisted Aimee Mann to construct the majority of the soundtrack. It was, as with all aspects of the film, a spot-on choice: Mann’s songs – haunted, complex and wise – matched the tone of the film. Anderson was so taken with the lyrics, that they influenced the characters and stories. Mann, long seen as an underappreciated talent, earned an Oscar nomination for best original song, for “Save Me,” a four-and-a-half minute piece that encapsulated a story that ran three hours and wove together multiple narratives.Beyond the individual songs that Mann contributed to “Magnolia,” there was a sense that the body of work she created for the film could almost tell a story on its own. Listen to the “Magnolia” soundtrack – which opens with Mann covering Three Dog Night’s “One,” and features a few songs by other artists, but is built around Mann’s original works – and there is a coherent emotional, if not literal, story being told.”It’s the first time I’d thought of writing songs for a movie,” said Mann, by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It was the first time having songs be almost an adjunct to a story line.”The possibility of thinking beyond the confines of a single song got lodged in Mann’s mind following the “Magnolia” experience. “I sort of was thinking about it vaguely,” she said. “As I started writing songs, I found myself wishing I didn’t have to try to make songs that completely didn’t relate to each other at all. I thought, I’d really like to keep writing about these characters.”Eventually, Mann saw no reason not to. For several years, she had been at odds with the major-label realm; her divorce from Geffen, which had released two of her solo albums, was documented in Mann’s song, “Calling It Quits.” She decided to celebrate her independence. “I thought, why not? I didn’t answer to anyone,” she said.
“Lost in Space,” from 2000, Mann’s second release on her own SuperEgo Records, was a tentative step into a more extended form. Mann says the album was “kind of conceptual. There were themes I was writing about.”There’s nothing “kind of” about the concept behind “The Forgotten Arm.” The 2005 album tells the story of a pair of troubled lovers in the ’70s. In the opening song, “Dear John,” John and Caroline meet at a carnival in Richmond, Va. (Mann’s hometown). Through a series of poetic, downcast songs, the two grapple with emotional issues, stemming both from the fragility of their relationship and from their own delicate personalities. The story ends on an uplifting note, with the song “Beautiful.” It is, thematically, a fairly direct continuation of the songs from “Magnolia,” but culminating in a semblance of narrative writing, akin to a novella. The liner notes open like a book, with a table of contents and an advisory that all characters portrayed are fictitious. The songs are listed as “chapters.” “I did try to keep them about the same characters,” said Mann, who appears tonight at 7 p.m. at Belly Up in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Lyrically Speaking series. “I treated it like they were songs for a soundtrack, like this song would go with a scene where they separate.”It’s nice to have a story. It’s nice to explore characters over more than one song. There are a lot of viewpoints, if I’m interested in a character. If I’m interested enough in a character to write a song about him, he’s dynamic enough to write a whole record about. It’s all or nothing with me.” (Mann is not the only one in the family to feel that way. Her husband, songwriter Michael Penn, released his own concept album, “Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947” last year.) Given that interest, it’s easy to envision Mann actually switching gears and writing prose. But she sees herself as far removed from that, and probably not even suited to writing precise narratives. Mann says that “The Forgotten Arm,” for all its specificity and linear flow, is “not really a story. But there’s a story that holds it together, these two people getting together and running away.”And Mann has never tried writing outside the song format. “Every now and then, I think about that,” said the 45-year-old, who first gained notice in the mid-’80s with the band ‘Til Tuesday and the hit song “Voices Carry.” “Then I think that writing an e-mail is really tough. Writing prose is tough. It took me a long time to become familiar with the form of songwriting. Prose requires keener observation. With a song, you can have fewer details. You can just sketch. Prose requires rhythms of dialogue. You have to make a lifetime habit of observing people in that way.”
Writing prose would also mean having to drop what is probably the essential part of Mann’s art, the music. Though her lyrics contain meaning and beauty, Mann’s music is at least as much about the sound. Even a song cycle like “The Forgotten Arm,” which was produced by Joe Henry, features lush settings and Mann’s affecting voice. This isn’t a folkie with earnest words and an acoustic guitar.When I mentioned that some songwriters treat the lyrics and music as separate entities, Mann said she could never be one of them.”The music dictates what the song will be. Sometimes I listen to a chord progression to see what it’s about,” said Mann, who attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music before dropping out in favor of forming a punk band, Young Snakes. “The music has a mood to me, an emotion, and that tells me what the story is. You change the tone of the lyrics by putting different music to it.”If Mann were to try her hand at fiction, she’d probably have at least one subject ready to dive into. A central issue in “The Forgotten Arm,” and one she has visited repeatedly, is addiction. In “The Forgotten Arm,” Mann explores various avenues through the subject.”I have friends who struggle with drug addiction. So it’s in my life in the literal way,” she said. “But it’s also a good metaphor. It’s an easy way to talk about spirituality, and about all kinds of fixations. And I think that’s how people are: they get obsessed with things so they don’t have to pay attention to other things.”
Mann has, in fact, wandered outside the songwriting realm – but that was to take a film acting role. She was featured as the female nihilist in the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski.” The role was tiny, but crucial: It was her character’s severed toe at the center of the bogus kidnapping plot.Musically, Mann’s next project is about as far from “The Forgotten Arm” as she is ever likely to get. Due this fall is her first Christmas album. (Presumably, “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas,” from “The Forgotten Arm,” will not be included.) “It was something I’d never considered, and it was so odd and interesting to me that I had to do it,” she said.Mann can recall the precise moment when she realized that the lyrics of a pop song might be worth parsing. She was listening with some friends to “Alone Again (Naturally),” a Top 40, easy listening hit by Gilbert O’Sullivan. One girl asked Mann if she knew what the song was about. The answer, to Mann’s shock and fascination, was suicide.”I said, ‘You’re kidding!'” said Mann. “That was controversial stuff back then, especially in the South.”It never occurred to me that you could have something so interesting and so subversive. People didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. So I felt that the ones who do get something special out of it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org