(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #52 – released January 30, 1996)
Track listing: Long Shot / Choice In The Matter / Sugarcoated / You Could Make a Killing / Superball / Amateur / All Over Now / Par For The Course / You’re With Stupid Now / That’s Just What You Are / Frankenstein / Ray / It’s Not Safe
The first lyrics on Aimee Mann’s second album are “You fucked it up”; given the fate of her critically acclaimed but sales-deprived solo debut Whatever, you can understand why she’s a little pissed off. From its title on down, I’m With Stupid oozes venom at both ex-lovers and ex-record labels but it’s deliciously knowing and cathartic rather than steeped in bitterness. It also finds the ex-‘Til Tuesday vocalist refining her sound a bit, retaining her Beatles-esque melodicism while stripping away some of the Whatever’s considerable gloss. As with Boys for Pele, in early ’96 it was a highly anticipated album for me (especially as its US release came six months after the rest of the world’s); however, unlike the challenging, oft-obtuse Pele, it hit directly upon contact.
And yet, I’m With Stupid is not exactly Whatever II—this is immediately apparent when you compare their openers. Whereas the previous album’s “I Should’ve Known” gradually winds up to life via mechanical sounds leading into loud guitars and a big beat, Stupid’s “Long Shot” follows a simple count-off with a basic, distorted riff, soon joined by bass and shuffling percussion and finally, Mann’s exquisitely bemused vocal (and that kicker of an opening line). As catchy as “I Should’ve Known” but far more contained, the song’s cool detachment notably serves as a counterpoint to Mann’s kiss-off lyrics—that is, until they unexpectedly take a vulnerable turn near the end when she sings, “And all that stuff / I knew before / just turned into / ‘Please love me more.’”
Although she doesn’t utter another “fuck” until the final track, the songs following “Long Shot” are just as acerbic, possibly even more. “Choice In The Matter” shrewdly whittles away its antagonist to nearly nothing while briefly throwing in a chorus of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (gleefully adding, “hope you drown and never come back”) for good measure. Titles like “You Could Make A Killing” and “That’s Just What You Are” project like-minded sentiments at the outset. “You’re With Stupid Now” belittles its subject for aligning him/herself with a clueless, unnamed other (and also for not knowing “how to manufacture… the crazy will of a Margaret Thatcher.”) Mann’s ever-rising vitriol nearly peaks on “Sugarcoated” (co-written with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who also plays on and contributes a sinewy solo to it) with this delectable dressing-down in the bridge: “And out of your mouth / comes a string of clichés / now I have given you so much rope / you should have been swinging for days / but you keep spinning it out.” Producer Jon Brion’s echoing backing vocal that follows conveys just the right amount of sarcasm.
Brion, who also produced Whatever, again lends his ultra-distinctive touch to Stupid, particularly in the odd, raindrop-like piano (or is that guitar?) sparkling all over the first few seconds of “You Could Make A Killing”, the old-timey tack piano in “Ray” and the fluttering, Mellotron-like keyboards throughout “Frankenstein” and “Amateur”. However, he’s generally more restrained this time. Stupid mostly adheres to guitar-bass-drums-voice arrangements whose relative simplicity help accentuate the other flavors occasionally popping up in the mix: fellow former Bostonian Juliana Hatfield’s simpatico backing vocals on “You Could Make A Killing” and “Amateur”; even more complimentary harmonies from Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford on three other tracks; Brion’s bass harmonica, further sweetening the irresistible bubblegum of “Superball”; the very of-its-time but crisply effective drum loop powering “That’s Just What You Are” which first appeared, improbably enough, on the Melrose Place soundtrack the year before and remains Mann’s only solo Billboard Hot 100 entry (straight in at #93!) to date.
Stupid’s first seven tracks arguably comprise the most solid run of tunes on any of Mann’s albums, culminating in “All Over Now”, a cunning, cutting, mid-tempo acoustic/electric rocker as frank and liberating as anything off of Alanis Morrissette’s then-contemporary/ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill (it has aged far better as well). With Big Star harmonies over late-Beatles guitars, she sings “And I’m free-eeee” in the chorus following the song’s title, and later, repeats the line, “It’s got nothing to do with me,” the final lyric of “Superball” two tracks before. In a slight, Abbey Road-like touch, “All Over Now” itself ends on a lyric from “Superball” (“And I warned you now / the velocity I’m gathering.”) It’s the sort of touch a casual listener may not even pick up on, craftily thrown in there for cleverness’ sake.
Still, Mann doesn’t rest on being clever. Smart lyrics, striking production and strong melodies can all add up to a good album (sometimes a great one); what pushes Mann and Stupid ahead of the pack is the wry, weary, complicated persona she began developing on Whatever that fully comes into its own here. She’s often dismissed as an “ice queen” for her cool, analytical put-downs; admittedly, a mass-market audience will likely never relate to a barbed sentiment such as, “When you’re building your own creation / nothing’s better than real / than a real imitation,” (from “Frankenstein”). At this point in her career, she’s not playing down to her intended listener, which is refreshing but also tricky—how does one achieve that perfect balance of being relatable and also distinct?
For this singer/songwriter, a sense of humor is key. After all, making “You fucked it up” as your first words on an album is more an act of playfulness than one drawn out of spite or malice, although such feelings are present (if masked) behind the way those words are presented. “That’s Just What You Are” similarly sounds like the giddiest kiss-off ever, thanks to its peppy, upbeat verve and the sprightly, staccato delivery of such lyrics as, “It’s not like you would lose some critical piece / if somehow you moved point A to point B.” “Superball”, which I once described as what Josie and The Pussycats would’ve sounded like if they really rocked (this was years before the 2001 movie adaptation with its off-the-charts irony), seems custom-made to make all who hear it commence automatically bouncing around like a carefree, grinning idiot.
Of course, too much “fun” can lead to unrelenting archness. Mann rectifies this by occasionally dropping the mask and embracing those often submerged but always present raw emotions. They first surface on “Amateur” and its gentle, disenchanted chorus of, “I was hoping that you’d know better than that / I was hoping, but you’re an amateur.” She then partially turns the blame on herself, singing, “But I’ve been wrong before.” “Par for the Course” shows even more vulnerability: over six minutes and a slow, four-chord progression, she sings ostensibly to an ex-lover who comes crawling back to her after another failed relationship. A series of short, pointed phrases (one whole verse: “Think how / it could have been / well you should / have said it all then”) obliterates any hope of her taking him back, but the somber guitar, bass, drums and keyboard arrangement (all of it performed by Mann) is played straight, and effectively so, gaining all the more power for not sounding like anything else on the album. It doesn’t so much build as simply resound, with Mann singing, “I don’t even know you anymore” again and again, not with disdain or pity but something approaching actual grief.
There’s no shortage of disdain and pity in Stupid’s cautionary closer, “It’s Not Safe”. Saving her most brutal critique for last, it would sound like already-charted territory if not for the sharpness she exhibits: “But you’re the idiot who keeps believing in luck / and you just can’t get it through your head that no one else gives a fuck,” that f-bomb rendered rather beautifully over four notes. As with the rest of Stupid’s barbed-wire kisses, half the fun is trying to figure out whether it’s directed to a former romantic or professional partner. Michael Penn, who plays this song’s guitar solo, married Mann the following year and they’ve been together ever since, so at least she made out well in the first category. As for the second, well, let’s just say she won’t easily run out of material, as we shall see.
Next: Prolonging the buzz.
“All Over Now”: