Her reputation as critical fave well cemented -- she writes gloomy and acerbic, sings scornful and angelic, collaborates with Elvis Costello, sleeps with Michael Penn -- Aimee Mann need only break through to people who actually buy CDs (the Magnolia soundtrack excepted, because it had the kind of icky major-label distribution from which she now flees). She might, certainly ought to, but peddling depressive-obsessive anthems for triple-A radio is no way to break into the bigs, bless her; she's doomed, Oscar nomination notwithstanding, to a life on the fringes, serenading and paying homage to the freaks and the fuck-ups, who need her more than the Borders bohos anyhow.
Now that she's done battling labels, the source of endless subject matter on albums two and three (at least) and proprietor of her own, what's left for Mann to handle? Addiction, as it turns out -- physical and emotional, detrimental and beneficial, literal and metaphorical and everything in between. "Let me be your heroin," she sings while "High on Sunday 51," and as a come-on it's almost a turn-off, which might be the point; when one partner begins to beg another for a fix of anything, it's surely a sign of unhealthy codependence and a sign to split. The whole record's like that, in fact: sad as hell, a pop-orchestral downer that's doomed and defeated and unabashedly proud of being shamed and ashamed. "I'm not the girl you once put your faith in/Just someone who looks like me," she sings by way of introduction; later, she's singing about "Guys Like Me" whom girls are better off hating. Take heed, then, when she insists, "Get out while you can." But who can move when the groove's so dreary and despondent, when it's one song after another about rejection without pop music's dopey and unlikely curative, redemption? This is bleak, but never weak, stuff -- the sound of someone lost not in space but inside her own broken heart and busted head.