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BWW Review: Aimee Mann at City Winery

The singer/songwriter's sold-out NYC run is the first stop on her latest US tour

BWW Review: Aimee Mann at City Winery

It's Good Friday, and I am attending Aimee Mann's opening night at City Winery. It's the first of four shows she will be playing over the weekend in New York City, which is the first stop on her US tour to promote her new album, Queens of the Summer Hotel.

I arrive at the venue early enough for a pre-show glass of red wine and plate of reuben egg rolls (yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: Katz's Deli does Chinese), and after fifteen minutes of swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and listening to the stylish lesbians next to me go through an item-by-item dissection of the menu ("How about the kale caesar?" "No babe, I just had a kale caesar."), I order my second cabernet and watch Jonathan Coulton, Aimee Mann's frequent collaborator and opening act, perform a number of catchy, folksy songs about sci fi culture, creepy dolls, and a Shop-Vac. At one point, Mann joins Coulton onstage to sing harmony, and the audience is blessed for the first time by that signature voice we all know and love, a voice that, in a split second, can transform itself from impassive mumble to soft, aching soprano. It's rare that a singer's voice so perfectly suits the nature of their songs, but Aimee Mann's does just that. She often places herself in the position of wry observer, chronicling the plights of characters struggling with anxiety, longing, and the need to self-protect, and this position is perfectly complemented by the laser-focused deadpan of her vocals. As she slips into her more vulnerable falsetto, however, we are reminded that Mann herself is hiding at the core of each of these stories. Whether it's penning an album-long tale of an alcoholic boxer and his girlfriend (as in 2005's The Forgotten Arm) or adapting a memoir about mental illness (her recent album was originally meant to be a stage adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted), she is both the watcher and the watched, the therapist and the patient.

After Coulton's set is over, Mann walks onstage to rapturous applause, and after opening with a cover of Steely Dan's "Brooklyn," she casually chats with the audience. "I hope you had a good pandemic," she says to a roomful of laughter, before, in perfect Aimee Mann fashion, pivoting to a somber follow-up: "Mine broke me in a way that I'll never recover from." This admission provides an appropriate thematic segue to the next two songs. The first is "You Fall," the opening track of the new album, which contains the lyrics: "You're strong, but Lord, who's really that tough?/You're made of such unbreakable stuff," followed by "I See You," a bleak but ultimately hopeful song: "People get crushed and broken/They lose and they grieve/But I see/And I believe."

At this point Mann invites Jonathan Coulter back to the stage, and they sing "Patient Zero" and "Rollercoasters," both from 2017's Mental Illness, which not only won the Grammy for Best Folk Album, but was also the soundtrack to much of my quarantine. I love this album, and hearing the delicious, whispery harmonies live is thrilling. "The Moth" and "Burn It Out," come next, followed by "Little Bombs" from The Forgotten Arm. "All the sweet green trees of Atlanta burst/Like little bombs/Or little pom-poms," is a line that could have been written by Sylvia Plath, observing nature with a dual sense of wonder and dread. This feeling of nostalgic doom is one that pervades much of Mann's work, and is one of the reasons I love it so much. The gently-pushing-the-bruise sensation I get when listening to her music is both disquieting and comforting. It's the same feeling I get when reading a particularly effective memoir. (Sadly I have never gotten around to Girl, Interrupted.) A good memoirist is one who, while searching for the light at the end of the tunnel, takes the time and care to bravely examine the tunnel itself. Mann has been doing this with her songs from the jump, and bearing witness to this process is an act which gives her listeners a vocabulary and context within which to examine their own struggles and fears.

Someone who has famously been affected by Mann's work is celebrated auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, who, after hearing a line from Mann's song "Deathly," was inspired to write his 1999 film Magnolia. This line was the first he put to paper, and is uttered by a character in the movie: "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" Mann's undeniable influence on Magnolia climaxes in a montage wherein each character sings along to her devastating song "Wise Up." (More on that later.)

After a performance of the new song "Suicide is Murder," the band immediately launches into the opening strains of "Save Me," another song from Magnolia, and for which Mann was Oscar nominated. The song is met with immediate cheering and applause, and for good reason. It's a great song, and the darkly romantic nihilism of its lyrics make me think of two of my favorite writers, Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace, artists who, like Mann, are masters at exploring the paradoxes of the human psyche through characters who long for connection yet fear what it might bring.

This sense of doomed connection is also the subject of the next song, "I Can't Help You Anymore," which is followed by "Video," "Gumby," and "Lost in Space." I love each of these, but the real prize is the final pre-encore song, "King of the Jailhouse," which has been a favorite since I first heard it on The Forgotten Arm fifteen years ago. A tale of two troubled drifters in love, this song contains two of my favorite Aimee Mann lyrics. The first is the chorus, which is repeated often throughout: "Baby there's something wrong with me/That I can't see." This unsettled feeling that something is amiss and tragedy is nigh is a thread that winds itself throughout Mann's storytelling, and one which brings to mind the work of other musical artists like Radiohead and The National.

After a brief duck offstage, during which I sprint to the bathroom, the band gathers again for the encore, the opening piano notes of which cause my heart to skip a beat. It's "Wise Up," from Magnolia. The crowd goes wild and as I look around during the song, I notice that, like in the film, many audience members are singing along. It's a special moment, and one that feels even more special because moments like this have been pretty nonexistent these past few years. This feeling continues as the band closes the night with "Long Shot," the opening track from Mann's 1996 album I'm With Stupid, after which they jog offstage and the lights come up. What a wonderful way to spend Good Friday.

As I walk to the subway after the show, I can't stop thinking about my favorite song of the night, "King of the Jailhouse," so I eventually decide to just pop in my earbuds and listen to it again. As I board the C train, my other favorite line of the song hits hard: "They don't give the answers/At the end of the test/So you can't simply stand there and hope for the best." As the subway rumbles on, I realize just how prescient this 2005 lyric seems to me now, during a time when a global pandemic continues, wars rage overseas, and humans everywhere attempt to balance the need for normalcy and security with the constantly growing demand for personal and societal adaptation. We don't have the answers, but it is a blessing that we have artists like Aimee Mann searching for them.

Daniel Nolen is a writer, designer, and performer in New York City. He is the co-host of the BroadwayWorld podcast Broken Records, as well as the weekly live show Cast Offs, every Monday at 8pm at Alan Cumming's Club Cumming.

Photo Credit: Sheryl Nields

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