“Like any great writer, she has the ability to articulate. She is the great articulator of the biggest things we think about, ‘How can anyone love me?’ ‘Why the hell would anyone love me?’ and the old favorite, ‘Why would I love anyone when all it means is torture?’ ”
This is southern California-born director Paul Thomas Anderson, making a claim in liner notes he contributes to Music From the Motion Picture Magnolia, his recent film. He does not have George Eliot or Emily Dickinson or Colette or Anaïs Nin or Erica Jong in mind. Anderson is talking about Aimee Mann, the ’80s leader of ‘Til Tuesday and, later, as a solo singer-songwriter, the record-biz fiasco who gradually ascended to a position of acclaim and admiration among pop intelligentsia now second only to that genius fuckup Lucinda Williams herself.
Mann contributes nine songs to Magnolia, all excellent specimens of a particular school of pop-rock that concerns itself with universal self-knowledge and relationship shit—tunes that will be compelling even to many people who, unlike Anderson, have not invested years loving and puzzling over her music. She begins with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One,” a breakup song whose melody and conception were clever enough to provide Three Dog Night a No. 2 pop hit in 1969. Mann’s is the kind of highly considered cover that signals something lies ahead. Jon Brion, the producer behind Fiona Apple’s current masterpiece, suspends Nilsson’s melody in a calm yet powerful 2000 sea, free of any particular references to the last four decades of rock. Using keyboard repetitions and a fearlessly musical background-vocal liquidity, Brion—more lucidly than anyone since Rhett Davies, the English producer of Roxy Music’s Avalon and the third ‘Til Tuesday album—builds Aimee Mann a stage.
And she takes it, balancing the precision of her old-line propriety and the heat of her nouveau emotions into a major vocal style of ultra-compressed breathiness. “Momentum,” “Build That Wall,” and “Deathly”—the other three Brion productions—cement the effect. On the first, Brion swings in an understated nightclub jazziness, although never enough to allow the genre air to suffocate Mann’s big-picture musings, themselves couched in an ironically cheerful melody. The piece has a richly weird Old Hollywood undertow. “Build That Wall” and “Deathly” return to more classic pop-rock, thriving on that famously English attention to melodic detail and illusion of total completion.
But Mann in these songs exceeds the self-satisfied Lennon-McCartney recapitulations only Beatleheads enjoy. On “Build That Wall,” where a woman on the phone is “courting disaster in an undertone,” Mann sings about frequent emotional closings-down in a melody that opens up with all the aesthetic symmetry of the Southern flower of Anderson’s title. On “Deathly,” which dramatizes extreme fear of personal involvement, she keeps injecting edges of liveliness into a melody of intentionally dulled folk-rock ghostliness.
Mann is sensational on the song, pulling a transcendently specific vocal manner out of undifferentiated layers of L.A. living-room goth. The mode is swaying and bluesy on “Driving Sideways,” intimate and erotically intricate on the great “You Do.” And then, despairing through “Wise Up” and growing guardedly hopeful through “Save Me,” it crests. Maintaining “It’s not going to stop” to husband and producer Michael Penn’s slowly crisscrossed piano and string settings on the former, bearing up better to her own self-produced strums and accordion warmth on the latter, Mann seems to own the nerve endings of the city behind her songs. On the soundtrack, the sequence is rounded out by “Goodbye Stranger” and “Logical Song,” two Supertramp hits from the ’70s that are tonally appropriate to Mann’s music; “Dreams,” the 1993 hit from English soul singer Gabrielle; and Brion’s Magnolia theme.
Anderson is only the latest in a line of pop-crazed Californians to call someone signed to a recording contract a “great writer”; for years, people in the L.A. music biz, for better or worse, felt no need to distinguish between Don Henley and Graham Greene, Joni Mitchell and Toni Morrison. But Anderson may well be the first 30-year-old film director and Supertramp aficionado to work successfully from the premise that pop songs are legitimate vehicles on which to base three-hour-plus motion pictures of staggering ambition. The view has nothing to do with the always wrong ’60s notion that pop exists in its own untouchable space—that it has no business justifying itself or borrowing luster from loftier art forms. Instead, Anderson just pays attention to his end-of-the-century instinct, the one that whispers, “I see the world in Spiderman comics. Or Sinatra. Or Shakespeare.”
The Magnolia collection proves the wisdom of this instinct. Imagine some kid in Kansas getting hold of Mann’s career-best recordings here. There’s Aimee, presiding over nine songs that have oblique yet undeniable musical and verbal linkages, a dire yet unsuicidal romantic who makes claims as only a pop singer who specializes in boarding-school leather-jacket phrasings ever might, singing the distressed soul of a great American city like Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks before her. The kid has not seen the movie. But then, after many listenings to Music From the Motion Picture Magnolia, he more than sort of has.