It’s safe to say Aimee Mann never thought she’d be at risk of overexposure. When Bachelor No. 2 came out, however, that’s just what happened.
Interscope Records didn’t hear a single in her new record when she brought it to the label after completing it. Mann responded by touring, raising enough money to buy the record back, eventually releasing the album on her own SuperEgo Records. Mann finished the year by contributing songs (some from Bachelor No. 2) to the Paul Thomas Anderson film, Mangolia. Critics loved the record. Tom Cruise sang “Wise Up” on movie screens across the country, and Mann was nominated for an Oscar. (She lost it to Phil Fucking Collins, but beggars can’t be choosers.)
It’s to Mann’s credit that Bachelor No. 2 transcended the media flurry that preceded and followed its arrival. These well-crafted, baroque pop songs were unlike anything Mann had ever done. Her work with ‘80s pop band ‘Til Tuesday was more radio-friendly, and the songs on her previous records – 1993’s Whatever and 1996’s I’m with Stupid – were less subtle, thematically and sonically.
Just like her hero, Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces is about the similarities between relationships and political warfare, much of Bachelor No. 2 is about the thin line between relationships and business. This angle, oddly, makes these songs about rejection more personal than her previous work. “It doesn’t really help that you can never say what you’re looking for,” she sings coolly on “Nothing Is Good Enough.” “But,” she continues, “you’ll know it when you hear it/ Know it when you see it walk through the door.” Label executive or uncommunicative lover? In the end, it doesn’t matter.
Although a handful of producers worked on Bachelor No. 2, the record’s sound is consistent. It’s so finely detailed that aspects of a song’s arrangement aren’t obvious until the fourth or fifth listen. Mann keeps her usual method of steadily strumming a guitar over an almost-hip-hop rhythm, but the producers – mainly Jon Brion, known for layered, pointillistic arrangements – provide tape loops, string flourishes, and soaring background vocals. The contrast between Mann’s clear voice and the intricate production is striking, and the approach benefits the songs.
As for the songs, Mann’s knack for melody has never been better, nor has her lyrical prowess. The opening line of “Deathly” – “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?” – was reportedly the main inspiration for the Magnolia screenplay. “Deathly” is so confident, so defiant that it wouldn’t have worked as anything but the record’s centerpiece. Its majestic guitar solo alone is the stuff of career-highlight reels (either that of Mann or Brion, who played the solo). Even the record’s sole misstep, the plodding “It Takes All Kinds,” starts with a hell of a lyric: “As we were speaking of the devil, you walked right in/ Wearing hubris like a medal you revel in/ But it’s me at whom you’ll level your javelin.”
Aimee Mann has never matched Bachelor No. 2. She’s come close, especially with 2005’s organic, straight-ahead rock record The Forgotten Arm, but Mann will likely never again achieve Bachelor’s combination of production, songwriting, and performance.