It’s easy to see how, if a song you wrote served as the primary inspiration for a movie — as Aimee Mann’s “Deathly” did for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the soundtrack of which was fleshed out with more of Mann’s material — you might start thinking and writing more cinematically yourself.
The Forgotten Arm is a concept album, or at least a collection of songs built around a central premise: A professional boxer falls in love, gets sent to Vietnam (the story is set in the ’70s), returns with a drug problem, and struggles to right himself. Addiction was also a major topic of Mann’s last studio album, 2002’s Lost In Space; by adding to her catalog another set of songs in the same direction, she runs the risk of falling into a thematic rut.
Still, Mann’s voice, which coolly declaims lines like “Life just kind of empties out, less a deluge than a drought,” is as alluring as ever, and the tracks themselves, produced by Joe Henry (who has shown his talents behind the board on albums by Solomon Burke, Jim White and others), are simple and straightforward — mostly piano, guitar, and drums — allowing Mann to get her songs across as directly as possible.
The relationship between the two principals and the setting of the story is sometimes too sketchy. There’s little to place The Forgotten Arm in time, save for a mention of the characters wearing Calvin Klein jeans. But Mann does succeed in describing the boxer’s continuing cycle of determination, then failure, in his attempts to clean up; she also details his lover’s shifting tides of devotion and complete exasperation.
As an album, The Forgotten Arm is pretty good. But it might make a great movie.