Sharps & Flats

On the "Magnolia" soundtrack, beleaguered singer-songwriter Aimee Mann comes into full bloom.

Published January 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The people who love Aimee Mann do so with a vengeance. There seem to be legions of them, a not-so-secret, not-so-underground network of fans for whom she's a symbol of all that's not right with the music business, the taste of the public, the world.

And they're not so wrong. Mann, a member of the '80s outfit Til Tuesday who went on to make consistently astonishing solo records, hasn't had an easy time of it in the business, and she's recently taken the wise step of making her own records and selling them directly online. (Her terrific EP "Bachelor No. 2" is currently available on her Web site.)

But so much has been written about Mann's disappointments -- she has no qualms about airing them in interviews -- that she's already become something of a poster child for all the hundreds of lost souls out there who make great records and just can't get a break. Of course Mann deserves better luck than she's had. But she's also too good to become anyone's token. Her music is so self-assured, especially at this point in her career, that victimhood just doesn't become her.

So let's consider Mann's soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson's movie "Magnolia" as if she'd never been sidetracked by bad breaks and greedy record labels, as if her effortlessly pointed wordplay and her smartly decked out melodies existed in a pop world of their own, a place no one ever has to worry about how well a record sells or how a contract can trip you up.

Because unlike any number of singer-songwriters who kick around for years, having their share of ups and downs, Mann just seems to get better. The only thing that's jarring and ill-fitting about the "Magnolia" soundtrack is that it includes Supertramp's "Goodbye Stranger" and "Logical Song": They're about nothing but nostalgia, whereas Mann never looks back, except, maybe, to invoke the Beatles. (The other non-Mann tracks are R&B crooner Gabrielle's sweeping 1993 "Dreams" and the lovely instrumental "Magnolia," written by Mann's longtime collaborator, Jon Brion.)

But nine of the 13 songs here are pure Mann -- she even makes a cover of Three Dog Night's "One" her own. In fact, in the liner notes, Anderson (a longtime fan) admits straight off that in writing his movie he "sat down to write an adaptation of Aimee Mann songs." He even ripped off one of her lyrics to use as a line of dialogue.

It makes sense, because Mann's songs always have a strong narrative drive even when there are no overt stories in them. "You look like a perfect fit/For a girl in need of a tourniquet," she sings at the beginning of "Save Me," directly but without any unsheathed sharpness or, worse, any self-pity.

The cast of characters behind the words are only half-cloaked in metaphor: In the movie, there's a girl who's losing blood by the ounce, figuratively speaking; and then suddenly there's the hope of a passer-by who just might take the time and care to stanch the flow. And the song unwinds from there, not so much a plea of "save me" as kind of seduction, in the way Mann unfurls the words like weighty silk -- and that's part of the story, too. "Save Me," in the way it's written and in the way Mann sings it, isn't about neediness but about pure need with all the desperation burned clean off, an acknowledgment that even people who know themselves, who are extraordinarily self-confident and well-adjusted, sometimes have to reach out.

It's a lot of stuff to put into a simple pop song, but Mann pulls it off over and over again. Mann's songs on "Magnolia" are ravishing and crisp: The lyrics are generally well-sharpened, in typical Mann fashion ("You stay the night at his house with no ride to work/And I'm the one who tells you he's another jerk"). But there's always something in the melodies, not to mention the gorgeous arrangements, that gently softens their topography: Mann can imbue a song with melancholy without completely dragging it down. For her, sadness is a rueful soft-focus lens, not a deadweight.

Maybe that's the secret ingredient that gives Mann's songs so much depth without ever sacrificing a sense of pleasure. (The rippling backing vocal harmonies she so often uses show she clearly loves the Beatles too much to sacrifice pleasure for anything.) Her melodies -- from the music-hall flavor of "Momentum" to the loping wistfulness and frustration of "You Do" -- are always as carefully crafted as her lyrics, if not more so.

And everything on "Magnolia" just sounds so glisteningly polished, without being too glossy. The arrangements alone are masterful. I keep going back to the almost reluctantly cheerful "Build That Wall" just so I can hear how the oboe, organ, glockenspiel and piccolo parts all fall gently into place just so, like a choreographed ballet of drifting leaves, against Mann's velvety vocals.

And that's another thing: Mann is singing better than ever, with more subtly defined textures and nuance, with more defenses stripped away. You hear it in "One," where her voice is lush and smoky and almost exotic, even as it occasionally shivers with a kind of mournful passion.

And in "Wise Up" -- a song used brilliantly in the movie, and one that stands up unequivocally on its own -- Mann blends softly into the natural panorama, defined by a simple, gently sloping orchestral arrangement that tapers off into a rueful, sonorous sigh. She's an organic part of the whole, like a gently feathered tree in a Claude Lorrain landscape, and yet her voice, both plaintive and defiant, is also the song's quiet center.

"Wise Up" specifically (it originally appeared on the 1996 "Jerry Maguire" soundtrack) and "Magnolia" as a whole indicate without a doubt that Mann is one of those rare singer-songwriters who's managed to actually mature -- a dreadful word, but there is no better one -- without boring us to death. In fact, she seems to get more interesting as she gets older. She's much too good to be anyone's underdog. And so, whether it sells 14 copies or a million, "Magnolia" should be considered the record that puts her on top, with nowhere to grow but up.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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