Do you have an artist in your collection who snuck up on you as a favorite, although you later realized they’ve been consistently amazing the entire time you’ve been listening to them?
I have a few, but none so prominent as Aimee Mann.
I can still remember my first listens to her LP I’m With Stupid. In fact, you can too, since they were a topic of one of my earliest blog posts! That places my entire Aimee Mann fandom within the life of Crushing Krisis.
Despite my early obsession with her I’m With Stupid and Bachelor No. 2, I fell off as a listener after that. I can explain exactly why in two words: “Jon Brion.” He’s now a composer of film scores, but back in 2000 he was a vintage-tinged, often-whimsical producer whose trademark sound was completely entwined in Mann’s songwriting on those two discs as well as on Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn (although you might know him better as the producer of Kanye West’s second and third full-lengths).
As much as I enjoyed Mann’s songwriting, I was convinced that it was producer Brion’s sound that made the songs stick to my brain. This was emphasized for me when I picked up Mann’s next LP, Lost In Space. It had a soft mid-section, and without Brion’s production to perk the tunes up I couldn’t really find an anchor in them. I kept buying her albums out of habit, but I would glom onto a song or two via shuffle and would be unaware of the rest.
Luckily, I am not the only consumer of my record collection. I have so much music in my library that E rarely shops for random new tunes; instead, she simply goes spelunking into my archives to try a new artist she’s never heard before. Sometimes this yields artists who I am cool on but she falls in love with, like Imogen Heap.
In the case of Aimee Mann, she had been listening each subsequent LP of hers into the ground while I had been blithely ignoring them, creating her own universe of favorite songs, dissected lyrics, and connected themes.
I had been dimly aware of her interest, but it wasn’t really until we caught wind of Aimee Mann touring last year that E’s love for her bled back into my own consumption. I bought us tickets to see Mann for E’s birthday, and all of a sudden I was exposed to an entirely new portion of her catalog that had been on my iPod for years but that I’d never heard before.
I realized that as much as I loved Jon Brion’s sound, that in some ways it had been obscuring Mann’s songwriting craft. I had been tuning in for the best guitar hooks and totally missing the devastation of her lyrics.
Now E and I have our own merged mythology of Mann, a shared constellation of stellar songs embedded in our universe of love for each other. Even EV6 has gotten in on it, with her own favorites to listen to and sing along to.
For me, this entire process is memorialized in “Video,” from 2005’s Forgotten Arm. It’s a terrific example of Mann writing about depression (as is the entirety of 2017’s Mental Illness), made memorable by its mostly single note melody above a see-sawing two-chord change.
Tell me why I feel so bad, honey
TV’s flat and nothing is funny
I get sad and stuck in a cone of silence
Like a big balloon with nothing for ballast
Labeled like a bottle for Alice
Drink me down or I’ll drown in a sea of giants
Yet, the song is about more than depression. It’s about memories, and how once we create a core memory of something we love we will play it back a thousand times until it becomes just a symbol of that love.
And tell me, “Baby, baby, I love you
It’s non-stop memories of you
It’s like a video of you playing
It’s all loops of seven-hour kisses
Cut with a couple near-misses”
There’s no more perfect a description of music for me than that, both as a consumer and a songwriter. Each song is a capsule of memories and feelings that I can play on a loop, with the song itself eventually replacing those fleeting memories and flimsy feelings, like tree sap turning to amber.
I’ll always have those two Aimee Mann albums I loved on my own, but now I treasure every other song after them, because when I hear those songs they play back videos of E and EV6 across my brain.