Aimee Mann has always excelled at capturing tiny moments and using details to freeze them into preservation. Her eye and ear for detail perfectly captures the feeling of loneliness on a very public holiday ("4th of July"), post-graduation blues ("Ghost World"), or that one moment during a first date where you want to back out ("Deathly"). So when Aimee Mann decided to write a concept album, it wasn't a shock that it did not include time travel, evil religious and political forces who prey on a kid named Nikki, or a loosely-based thread of how we are losing the fundamentals of human contact in the computer age. Instead, it was about the stormy relationship between a boxer and his girlfriend.
Aimee Mann's interest (and practice) of boxing helped form the overall arc of The Forgotten Arm, a boxing term referring to position a boxer gets themselves into to deliver a surprise hit. John, an ex-Vietnam veteran, and Caroline meet at a carnival and in the course of 45 minutes, go through their honeymoon period, try to escape their demons, become consumed by their demons, and eventually find acceptance.
When it came out, The Forgotten Arm was regarded as a solid Aimee Mann album. Some people who may have already tired of the boxing metaphors with Million Dollar Baby may have had to wait a few years before revisiting the disc. In addition, more artists were doing concept albums during the middle part of the last decade, and Aimee Mann's modest, pared-down story and production may have resulted in the album getting lost in the shuffle of other high-profile releases.
As an album, The Forgotten Arm doesn't quite reach the same heights as some of her finest moments (namely Bachelor No. 2). Songs like "I Can't Get My Head Around It, and "She Really Wants You" veer dangerously into standard adult contemporary pop. Compounding matters is the leadoff track, "Dear John," a good, standard rock song that does little to pull the listener into the lives of the two central characters.
But if a listener is willing to slog through a few missteps and reach the end of the album, it's fairly certain they will come back. Mann's ability to come up with the perfect phrase to sum up emotions is all over this disc. And producer Joe Henry creates a warm atmosphere that enables the listener get lost in the character's lives.
"Goodbye Caroline" has a near-perfect opening line, only made sweeter by Mann's croon: "Put on your shoes girl / I'm going to the coast / Where every loser gives up what hurts the most." Mann lets "loser" linger slightly, making it all the more effective. For any person who has dreamt of escaping their home state or hometown, "Goodbye Caroline" is a perfect candidate for "First song to play once you pass that state line." A second masterstroke is the devastating "Video," which has a chorus that builds and rolls out like a tide.
Even the songs that don't achieve the technical and emotional heights of "Goodbye Caroline" or "Video" have moments that bring listeners back. Rhyming "bombs" with "pom poms" may not have been the best choice in "Little Bombs," but when Mann sings "Life just kind of empties out," that ache lingers. In "I Can't Help You Anymore," Caroline asks "Was I the bullet or the gun?" It's a question no doubt anyone who has gone thorough a bad relationship has asked themselves at one time or another.
At the time, The Forgotten Arm was liked by critics, but not enough for it to land on many "Best Of 2005" lists. It also didn't do much in terms of setting the charts afire. But five years after its release, The Forgotten Arm hasn't lost a bit of luster. The concept and arrangements may have been low-key, but Mann proved once again that a good hook and great songwriting will always find an audience. Even if it takes another five years.