“Addiction and Grace,” the title of the Christian spiritual classic by Gerald May, is also an apt description of Aimee Mann’s latest disc, The Forgotten Arm . Her new collection of songs marks the fifth solo release for the former ’til Tuesday front woman and the first time she’s dared to tread into the highly dangerous territory known as “The Concept Album.” Fear not, music fans, The Forgotten Arm is a musical novella that contains some of Mann’s finest work to date. In it she recounts the story of John—a drug addict—and Caroline who meet at the Virginia State Fair in the 70’s and begin a troubled journey across the U.S. Through her melodies Mann is able to evoke in the listener a mood that perfectly reflects her characters’ often desperate condition but ultimately, she rescues her characters with a gleam of hope in the redeeming power of love.
“The King of the Jailhouse,” sets the tone for John and Caroline’s troubling co-dependent relationship. These lovers are drawn together with a desire to share their distressed lives, believing that, “Sharing the burden will lighten the load.” Their pain, physical and emotional, swirls together as the couple, each desperate for love, begin to realize that their problems are not as easy to bear as they had assumed. John is a boxer, but he spends most of his time fighting himself and the cycle of addiction and depression that grips him. For her part, Caroline begins to see the poignant truth of his life “We’ll have a big parade for everyday that you stay clean,” her heroine laments in the brilliant song “Going Through the Motions,” “but when the trumpets fade you’ll go under like a submarine.”
Mann has created very realistic characters and puts them in an all-too-real troubled relationship. As a child of the 70’s, it is not a coincidence that Mann set her story in this decade and that she focuses on the casual attitude that many held about the drug culture. Mann digs into the underbelly of this culture and is not afraid to show the sometimes-sad consequences of embracing it. John knows that there is something wrong with him, but is unable to understand the root of his problems. Listeners are left to wonder throughout the album if Caroline’s love will ultimately help John to escape the vice-like grip of his addictions? While Mann ultimately provides no clean answer, she leaves room for hope.
Few contemporary songwriters can struggle with complex themes like grace, pain, love, desolation and redemption as well as Mann. In a musical landscape filled with superficiality, she is one of the few ambassadors of intelligent, melodic pop music.
Mann has repeatedly proven herself a master of setting the story of distressing relationships to music. Many of her previous solo albums focus at least partly on this theme, but The Forgotten Arm is her most overt attempt to grapple with the pain two human beings can inflict upon one another in a relationship, whether intended or not. The title, The Forgotten Arm refers to a concept in boxing—one of Mann’s favorite hobbies—that if a boxer repeatedly delivers blows with his left arm, his opponent will focus all of his attention on blocking the punches from the left, leaving him open for a surprise uppercut from the forgotten right arm.
The painful surprises, multiple broken promises and broken hearts become the “forgotten arm” in John and Caroline’s relationship. But this isn’t the whole story. Toward the end of Mann’s musical tale, John begins to understand and regret the effect his decisions are having on Caroline and their relationship. The album’s last song, “Beautiful” is a hauntingly gorgeous testimony to the ability to see beauty in a troubled relationship. In it, Caroline wonders if John will ever see himself the way she does—as a troubled, but beautiful human being. Certainly, one need not struggle with addiction to resonate with that sentiment.