Aimee Mann, Lost In Space

aimee-mann-lost-in-space

Aimee Mann Lost In Space

I’ve fallen in love with Aimee Mann and lost it again. I bought I’m With Stupid when I was 18, and I was a little heartbroken myself, and found a line like “All that stuff/ we knew before/ just turned into/ please love me more” to be the height of wounding precision. Mann was always jaded and dispassionate, but she also was onto something – dismissive without being glib, wallowing in feelings while also mocking them. I’m With Stupid is still the vintage Mann record, representative of who she is. In 2008, when Mann released her weakest record @#%&*! Smilers, Spin pulled a Mann on Mann – unfairly, I think – describing it as “Another nuanced collection of mid-tempo ’70s-pop-referencing tunes that document the lives of folks who manage only fleeting moments of happiness between protracted stretches of frustration.”

That was the Mann project, the stuff Mann would refer to as “my normal stuff.” By the time 2002’s Lost In Space came around, Mann had found some amount of mainstream success after early 2000’s Magnolia soundtrack, and the freedom that gave Mann to purchase back her most successful record, Bachelor No. 2. The truth is the nuance, mid-temp, 70’s-referencing collection is Bachelor, and it doesn’t hold up well. By 2002, critics took it out on Lost In Space. Rolling Stone gave it a two-star review saying her writing was obvious and her hooks were non-existent, citing “The Moth” that was drawn to the flame and “Humpty Dumpty” who had a great fall. But is that really fair? I actually find some bravery in an opening number called “Humpty Dumpty,” especially this “Humpty Dumpty,” with its ferocious chorus: “Better take the kids/ and drive forever/ Staying won’t put these pieces back together/ All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ wouldn’t be enough to bring me up to zero.” The truth is the line is just crankier than anything she’d written before, but also, sung in a lower register, more forbidding.

I had Lost In Space for at least a year before I got the whole thing, and each year I value it a little more – and, in truth, the rest of Mann’s catalogue a little less by comparison. “Humpty Dumpty” is cranky alright, but it also has bridges of soaring vulnerability – “I’m not the girl you once put your faith in,” she sings, “just someone that looks like me” in her highest register, before switching out of it to that vicious chorus. Lost In Space, then, seemed to me to be the first record of Mann’s to really indulge her viewpoint, the true emotional coldness that underlined her cynicism, sarcasm, and nuanced dismissal in her previous records. Its cover features a cartoon drawing of power lines across a spare night sky. You follow its stars and bouncing lines that connect a personality adrift in misery.

As I said, it was a year. During that year, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to “It’s Not,” the album’s final song, but eventually something struck me – this song was perfect. At first, it merely seems like the most resigned song of Mann’s career, the opposite of an affirmation – a disaffirmation, that you think things will get better but they won’t. It just seemed too simple and whiny. But the coldness that echoed through the record eventually caught up in my own life – it was a remarkably cold winter in Colorado, and I, in a phase of my life readjusting from a long study abroad, felt remarkably alone. I first got hooked on the more directly enticing songs of “This Is How It Goes” and “Pavlov’s Bell,” but “It’s Not” kept me coming back. It was a line in its bridge – “People are tricky/ you can’t afford to show/ anything risky/ anything they don’t know.” But sung with such sadness, it went from being an observation by the loneliest girl in school to being wise with hard fought, isolated lessons. That’s because the desperation that Mann’s dispassionate work had covered up comes to bubbling, thrilling fruition on Lost In Space. This is Mann embracing her inner PJ Harvey but retaining her own eloquent style.

From there, every song eventually takes hold, even “High On Sunday ‘51” and “Guys Like Me,” which I skipped on my cd player for months. Each is constructed with just the right malaise and revealing resentment. Like “It’s Not,” the album, rather than being a pick-me-up, is a rather comforting, deeply moving confirmation of your worst fears. Each song seems to reveal a line of deep poetry about the pits of self-loathing, like in “Real Bad News” which sees Mann singing, “I won’t make you feel bad/ when I show you/ this big ball of sad/ isn’t worth even filling with air.” Or in “Invisible Ink,” which finds Mann singing to a lover, “I feel like a ghost whose moving your hands across some Ouija board in the hopes I might spell out my name,” and of herself, “I suppose I should be happy to be misread – better be that than some of the other things I have become.” These are most certainly not lines written by an artist in a slump.

There’s another element that binds the album together like the lost telephone wires on the cover, and this is still to me the album’s strangest elements – drugs. They’re mentioned in at least half of the songs recorded – in “Pavlov’s Bell,” Mann implores a lover to “give her the fix,” in “This is How It Goes,” she muses, “It’s all about drugs, it’s all about shame,” and in “High on Sunday ’51,” the chorus sadly begs a love to “Let me be your heroin.” Was Mann experiencing the world’s most transparent chemical dependency? I doubt it; I think it has more to do with that over half of the “This Is How It Goes” couplet – it’s all about shame. Mann floated around the notions of humiliation and, really, of sadness with her wise, omniscient, perfectly-rhymed eloquence for years. Lost In Space goes so fervently for its own sad underbelly that it turned off the core Mann fans who fell in love with her dejection in the first place. What’s brave about it is that it revealed what was there all along.

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One Response to “Aimee Mann, Lost In Space”

  1. Scott Says:

    My initial impression of Lost in Space was tepid. Only in the last year or two has it gone on to be my favorite Aimee Mann album. Now I absolutely adore it. Even the art enhances the experience and the mood.

    I disagree with your assessment of Smilers as her weakest album. It’s my second-favorite, maybe tied with Lost in Space. I think she gets better and better.

    Also completely agree with your posting on “Coming Up Close.” That led me to develop an interest in her beyond ‘Til Tuesday (and I was there when “Whatever” was released).

    Cool blog.

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