In a key song on her eagerly awaited new album, Aimee Mann poses the eternal $64,000 question: "How Am I Different?" To which besotted fans, admiring critics, and her felicitous fellow musicians might all be inclined to answer: Let us count the ways.
She first rose to fame bucking an overbearing beau's attempts at hush puppetry in 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," and hasn't developed any more of a taste for conformity in the years since -least of all with Bachelor No. 2, her third solo album and first independent release. Mann actually bought the album back from her previous label, Interscope Records, rather than accede to their demands to scrap parts of it in favor of recording more hit-radio-friendly material. It won't come to any surprise to her fans that the themes of the new songs seem almost prophetic when it comes to this kind of struggle. It's pop music about low emotional tides and high moral ground, fraught with fierce disappointment and only half-diminished idealism, offset by a little gallows humor and a whole lot of gallant melodicism. Here, you'll surely agree as you listen to uncompromising songs like "Nothing is Good Enough" and "Calling It Quits," is an artist who just begs to differ.
Despite casting herself as the protagonist of the wryly titled "Fall of the World's Own Optimist," Mann has never exactly been known for her Pollyanna attitudes toward love, life, or the pop music machinery. But the thought of releasing a record on her own terms, after years of struggling with literally single-minded business execs, has her sounding borderline bullish about music again.
"I really like the idea of being a professional musician - that I have a job that I'm good at and a good work ethic. I get a giant kick out of that," she enthuses. "It's fun working on the craft aspect, but towards an emotional end." Writing a song, for her, is "like a crossword puzzle with a secret message in the end."
As the old ad campaign put it, the pride is back. "Probably one of the reasons it's so frustrating dealing with people at record companies who are trying to push you in a direction you're not comfortable with is that they're trying to get you to do stuff you're not good at. Posing for pictures and videos and schmoozing is the thing I'm least competent at. But writing lyrics and putting songs together and recording them-that part I'm good at. To thwart that and then encourage the thing that I can only be mediocre at is just very stressful."
Given her frustrations with certain label execs in the past, it might not be unreasonable to see double entendres of a sort in some of these putative ballads of thwarted romance. As writer Jonathan Van Meter noted in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, "Mann is known for writing clever, disappointed love songs that can also be read as damnations of the music industry." She'll allow that "Nothing is Good Enough" did have its basis in a conversation with someone at her last label who wanted to hear some hits, but it also grew at least as much out of a discussion with a friend who fretted that nothing she did measured up to her boyfriend's expectations.
"A song that's purely about me and a record company would be non-stop boredom, but it never is just that," she points out. "I think that people tend to come up against certain situations regardless of whether they're in personal relationships or friendships or work. And the type of situation that I keep coming up against that's personally frustrating and painful for me echoes in a lot of different places. That's why it's so easy for me to draw analogies between relationships and music business stuff, because that is a relationship, too. 'Hey, I'm in a relationship with somebody who wants something from me that I can't deliver'-everybody knows what it's like to be in that situation, and it doesn't matter who it is, there's always the same anguish about it."
Among the pointed lyrics in "Nothing is Good Enough" is the line, "The critics at their worst could never criticize the way that you do..." Not that she'd know, necessarily; the critical arena is one place where Mann hasn't faced much in the way of rejection. Though some journalists were quick to dismiss 'Til Tuesday as an MTV-bred phenomenon early on-which may have had more to do with the fact that the band had a few bad hair years than any failings of the music itself - most reviewers caught on about the time of 1989's Everything's Different Now, the group's third and final Epic album.
Her 1993 solo debut on Imago, Whatever, cemented the critics' love affair with Mann, though the most hyperbolic plaudits had to wait for 1996's I'm With Stupid, on Geffen. David Thigpen of Time magazine called Stupid one of the "catchiest pop albums of the year, brimming with poised three-minute mini-masterpieces," adding that "Mann has the same skill that great tunesmiths like McCartney and Neil Young have: the knack for writing simple, beautiful, instantly engaging songs." Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman, in citing Stupid as one of the essential discs of the '90s, described Mann as "one of rock's most elegantly gifted writers, with a well-attuned psychological acuity to her catchy kiss-offs that any angry young woman should envy. Bitterness, regret, and recrimination never sounded any sweeter, or smarter."
In the summer of '99-while waiting to buy Bachelor No. 2 back from Interscope after that company lost interest in most of its sub-blockbuster artists following the Universal merger - Mann undertook a small-scale tour of the east and west coasts, as well as playing some key Lilith Fair dates, picking up plenty more raves for her new material along the way. Reviewing her show at Tramps, the New York Times' Ben Rattliff praised "her skill at writing urbane pop songs, melodically rich and full of well-worn sayings fitted into spiky couplets." Assessing the same show for the web site Salon, Stephanie Zacharek said Mann "has never sounded better; her voice was alternately velvety smooth and bell-like in its clarity. And the new material she unveiled is right in line with her earlier records in terms of craftsmanship, groovy sound, and gently pointed lyrics."
How did we arrive at this stage in the dating game?
It all started when Mann formed her first band, the Young Snakes, after quitting the Berklee School of Music in the early '80s. After that self-consciously punkish outfit broke up, she and fellow Berklee dropout Michael Hausman joined up with Joey Pesce and Robert Holmes to form 'Til Tuesday in 1982, taking a decidedly more pop approach. Not long after the quartet won a Boston battle of the bands contest, Epic signed 'em up, and their debut album, Voices Carry, went gold within seven months, with no little help from constant exposure on then-new MTV.
Although their signature song had to do with a woman finding-and keeping-her voice, that didn't really start happening till around the time of 'Til Tuesday's second album, Welcome Home, as Mann began writing most of the songs alone. Other members dropped out until, by the time of Everything's Different Now, their swan song, it was just her and drummer Michael Hausman, who subsequently quit the skins and became her manager. The beginning of the end may have been spelled when Epic asked her to write with Diane Warren; instead, she chose to collaborate with presumably lesser lights like Jules Shear and Elvis Costello.
Going solo, she started anew with Imago Records, which, it turns out, was just about to fall apart as Whatever came out. As that label sat in limbo for years, she was able to get out of her deal and sign with Geffen in time to release her next Jon Brion-produced album, I'm With Stupid - though it was actually Giant Records that got her a good deal of airplay for one of the album's most popular songs, the Squeeze-augmented "That's Just What You Are," which first appeared on that label's Melrose Place soundtrack. Other recent film placements have included songs in Jerry Maguire (filmmaker Cameron Crowe being one of her most ardent fans), Cruel Intentions, and Sliding Doors.
She's featured more prominently, to say the least, in a new film, Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's followup to Boogie Nights, scheduled for a Christmas Day '99 release. Anderson has compared the way he wanted to spotlight Mann's music here to how Simon & Garfunkel were used in The Graduate. Sure enough, Magnolia features no fewer than eight Mann songs, including the opening theme (a cover of Harry Nilsson's "One"), an original closing number, and some key interludes in-between, one of which features the entire cast-from Tom Cruise to Jason Robards-reacting to her music in a most interesting fashion. Warner Bros. Records will release the soundtrack album, which duplicates some songs from Bachelor and includes other new Mann anthems not available anywhere else, in December.
As for the new Mann album, when Interscope took over Geffen and began to balk at her choice of material, it was like deja vu all over again. Once again, Elvis Costello was not considered a good enough writing partner. (The new "Fall of the World's Own Optimist" marks their first collaboration since "The Other End of the Telescope," which Costello subsequently recorded as well, after its initial appearance on a 'Til Tuesday album.) Once more, they asked for material that would better suit the shifting whims of radio - whatever those were likely to be in six months. Mann asked for her release, and got it, though negotiating to buy the masters back at a considerable sum took a little longer. But at last we have Bachelor No. 2, in the form that God and Mann intended.
"We have our record back, and I'm sure Interscope could've given us a lot more trouble about getting it back, but they didn't, and God bless 'em," says Mann. "People who want to have giant hits at any cost, that's the place for them. If they want to make fabulous videos and have giant hits, and have people asking them what they're wearing at the Grammys, that's perfect for them, it's the system they belong in. It hasn't been a system for people like me in a long, long time. I was crazy to think I could find some way to make it work for me. As it happens, I can't. And I'm a million times happier, just in these last few months, going out on tour and playing for myself and having nobody criticize the way I'm touring or what I'm playing or what I say in interviews. It's fantastic - it's incredibly liberating."
This time Mann self-produced most of the tracks, with assists from Brendan O'Brien and Buddy Judge. Though it's not a radical stylistic departure, fans will notice a few breaks from form. "I wanted to get the production, on just a couple of songs, to sound like old Dionne Warwick records," she notes, adding that the album is probably a bit heavier on ballads than her previous work.
And since the last time around she's gotten married - to fellow singer/songwriter Michael Penn, in early 1998 - might this album be just a little sunnier in outlook? "Not at all. Not even a little," she laughs. "I think that getting married and having a happy marriage enables you to actually get work done, rather than being so despondent you just sit in a room for days on end. And he's also a great help in bouncing things off of and getting a good second opinion. It's nice to have another professional musician in the house."
In fact, Mann proposes (no pun intended) that a lot of Bachelor's songs "are about being single, regardless of being married or not. Some of them I had already written or started working on" before settling into matrimony, she points out. "But my relationship with Michael is so unique that there are ways in which I don't really feel like I'm having a relationship, because I've defined 'relationship' as being this sort of unwieldy, nightmarish thing."
The bad dream that is the struggle for love and respect may not be anywhere close to ending in Mann's fiercely independent songs, then, but for fans who've been patiently waiting for this album, the long national nightmare is about to end. Bachelor No. 2, please step up.