In Life: The Movie, Neal Gabler proposes that movies have become such a preeminent metaphor in America that many people now see their own lives as Hollywood-style narratives. Aimee Mann's comeback took Gabler's thesis to its logical end. Mann's story reads like a show-biz melodrama: New-wave also-ran suffers in semi-obscurity and endures countless label hassles before her supremely literate, bittersweet pop gets discovered by a hotshot maverick filmmaker, who makes it both the literal soundtrack and the emotional heart of a high-profile Hollywood epic. An Oscar nomination, critical hosannas, and brisk album sales ensue. But Mann's comeback wasn't just like a movie, it was a movie, in that Magnolia and its soundtrack enjoyed a rare kind of near-perfect movie-music symbiosis.
The release of the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No. 2 may have marked the climax of Mann's career: Her two subsequent albums reveal a steady decline that's snuffed any lingering sense of afterglow. Her 2002 album Lost In Space wasn't bad, but it lacked both the bubblegum snap of 1996's I'm With Stupid and the melancholy grandeur and emotional sweep of Bachelor No. 2. Where Mann previously counterbalanced sadness with wry, tart humor, she now wallows in pain, seemingly angling for tour sponsorship from Zoloft. And though her new release The Forgotten Arm ostensibly functions as a concept album about the road-tripping relationship between folks named John and Caroline, Mann still seems to be singing about exactly the kind of flawed, masochistic relationships she's been obsessing over since at least her first solo album.
The fight seems to have gone out of Mann, whose finely wrought cynicism has devolved into dour resignation. The Forgotten Arm's songs mope along for a few minutes before expiring with a whimper, and Joe Henry's tastefully bland production lazily feeds into Mann's depressive tendencies when it should be fighting them. Even worse, Mann's signature wordplay sounds clichéd and exhausted, and her melodies lack the energy and pop sparkle that distinguished her pre-Lost In Space work. Since Mann's comeback began with a film, it may be all too appropriate that The Forgotten Arm, like Lost In Space, feels like a disappointing sequel: It reworks familiar themes with only a fraction of the original's impact.