Listen to this track by singer-songwriter and boxing fan Aimee Mann. It’s “Goodbye Caroline”as taken from her 2005 concept record, The Forgotten Arm. That title comes from a boxing move, whereby you throw a blow with one hand to make your opponent think that there’s nothing else coming. Then, you throw the other blow immediately after, delivered by your other “forgotten” arm, even harder. That’s how you get it done in the ring, and it serves as a pretty powerful metaphor about how life can go, too.
But, what about this business of concept albums? It sends cold pricklies up the necks of some fans, and thrills of delight in the hearts of others. This may be because some concept albums tend to get bogged down, serving the concept rather than the songs.
Mann’s record traces the relationship of John, an alcoholic boxer, and his love being the titular Caroline. And, this tune inside of that larger narrative just sings; a jangly pop classicist gem with a bit of folk-rock flavouring thrown in there too.
The lyrics giveaway something of the turbulent nature of love, particularly in the face of trying times. In line with the rest of the record, love is not a cure all for life’s demons, just a context for them. And in this song, faith in love is perhaps imbalanced, with the threads of that love being being somewhat tenuous.
Even if this song is a part of a greater narrative, it has an internal completeness that is the hallmark of good writing within that tricky concept record context. The sense of character through out the album also makes sense here on this song. In this way, the songs aren’t simply stepping stones. John is a haunted man, making his way as a prizefighter, and struggling with the bottle, all the while trying to make it work with Caroline.
All of that isn’t immediately clear in this one song, but the thread of those themes certainly is; healing, faith, being on the run, and in a world where one doesn’t entirely belong searching for likeminded, and likehearted companions. Most importantly, the idea of the best laid plans, and what can often happen to undo them. That’s pretty universal – that sometimes, life itself can pull that Forgotten Arm move on us, knocking us out before we know what happened.
You get shades of that here on this one song. But even without that wider story, there’s a payoff for the listener. Perhaps this is another mark of a successful concept record; that a concept or story arc across multiple songs is really just an expanded exercise in creating something that an audience can hook into, rather than something springing from the ego of the artist.
Aimee Mann is an active musician today. Her newest record Charmer is out now.
Also, this is your chance to investigate aimeemann.com. So, go for it! Stick and move, stick and move.