In Aimee Mann’s world, happiness doesn’t come easy: Every morsel is a negotiated deal, a temporarily won battle, a fleeting drug. It’s amazing that she’s been able to mine this territory for albums twice in a row, starting with Lost in Space—the law of diminishing returns should have set in. But the songs on The Forgotten Arm are too engaging to dismiss their familiarity, and the only diminishing returns are those experienced by her characters John and Caroline as they search for and run from themselves.
Mann’s junkie boxer and the hard-luck woman who loves him are by turns inarticulate—”baby” their only syllable-filler term of endearment—and marvelously poetic as they stumble through the ruins of faded Virginia fairgrounds. She gives them dignified musical backdrops, her melodies as effortlessly lulling as ever. “She Really Wants You” is as close to a hit single as Mann has written this decade, but “Goodbye Caroline” is the peak, a touching expression of ambivalence from someone who knows no other reaction to stimuli.
As for that forgotten arm: It’s Mann’s term for “the knockout punch [that] you never see coming,” but it also applies to a fighter who only recognizes the power in his arm when poison’s entering it. And despite John’s threat to throw in the towel after a clean Christmas, Mann knows he’ll stumble on, continuing a steady diet of cigarettes and ready veins.
Aimee Mann plays Roseland June 10.