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Chronicles of Doubts Foretold

This was supposed to appear in a forthcoming issue of a magazine that will remain nameless — I wrote the review in an hour and I still have not seen payment, or the magazine, or the bootleg CD that was promised me.

So here it is.

Chronicles of Doubts Foretold

She’s gone solo, been screwed over by her record company, gotten married (to singer and songwriter Michael Penn, which makes her Sean and Chris’s sister-in-law), and had a film essentially built around her songs (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia), but in many ways Aimee Mann has not really changed all that much from her spiky-haired days as the lead singer of ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday. (Remember the video for “Voices Carry,” where, despite the injunctions to “hush” and “keep it down,” she starts yelling in a crowded theater full of tuxedoed operagoers?) The same weary bitterness, a touch of rebelliousness, and her affinity for catchy pop melodies are still very much in evidence on her latest album,Lost in Space (SuperEgo).

In a very general sense, Mann’s songs are about relationships. But popular music has always had a curiously poor vocabulary when it comes to describing them, with the usual songs in giddy celebration of lust or love, or ballads mourning (or cursing) a separation. The songs on this album, in contrast, are chronicles of deaths and doubts foretold, of the moment when the relationship is on the verge of unraveling, or (as she writes in “This Is How It Goes”) “one more failure to connect.” The first track on the album, “Humpty Dumpty,” already strikes a grim tone: “Say you were split, you were split in fragments / And none of the pieces would talk to you.” Her lyrics inhabit the space between people as they sit across from each other silently at dinner, or as they lie awake in bed in the middle of the night, wondering about the person lying next to them. This is Mann’s true gift: her imprecise, sometimes maddeningly oblique lyrics give shape and detail to the unspoken, messy, irrational complexity of human, and yes, adult, relationships. “Oh I could get specific,” she writes in “Invisible Ink,” “but nobody needs a catalog / With details of a love I can’t sell anyone.” And so, because of this vagueness, it’s about everyone and anyone. Now do you know why all the characters in Magnolia get to sing “Wise Up?”

She does not take any stylistic leaps on this album – no useless forays into electronica, thank goodness – for she does not need to; her lyrics already tell the tale. The songs all fall in her usual midtempo range, and are lovingly arranged (even without the presence of her former collaborator, Jon Brion), with a touch of harmonium here and a minimoog there. Michael Lockwood’s guitar is all over the place here, though he has no soaring solos like the one on “Deathly,” from her previous album Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo. (One must also take note of the gorgeous art and design by Seth, writer and artist of the Drawn and Quarterly comic book Palookaville; his tales of hand-wringing desperation and the ache of solitary lives go well with Mann’s songs.)

Aimee Mann is in fine, refreshing form on Lost in Space, though it is clear that her feet are planted firmly on the ground.