You will see Aimee Mann’s 2000 album Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo commonly listed among the greatest albums of its time period, among the greatest singer-songwriter albums, even among the greatest albums, full-stop. Yet it is relatively unique in that heady company as a masterpiece of a record that was unwanted and unloved to the point that the artist herself, knowing its worth, had to take matters into her own hands just to get the world to hear it.
As Mann aficionados know, Bachelor No. 2 only saw the light of day after she left Interscope Records, which failed to see any commercial viability in the project. She became a pioneer of sorts by creating SuperEgo Records for the sole purpose of releasing the album, before a distribution deal brought it to a wider audience and practically unanimous acclaim. Now it’s getting a bells-and-whistles reissue on vinyl for Black Friday Record Store Day.
Mann spoke to American Songwriter about the reissue, which also features several songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Save Me,” that wound up on the Magnolia soundtrack. She also talked about the difficult path the album travelled to reach classic status. As Mann explains, she had faith in the work she was creating, even if her record label didn’t exactly give her much in the way of positive feedback.
“I was always confident in it,” she says. “You can think that you’re doing something good. But the problem is that, when you’re on a record label, they’re the only people hearing the songs and commenting on the songs. But they’re listening for a certain thing. If you tried to listen to music, thinking which of these songs is going to be a hit, which could be a single, you are absolutely never going to enjoy the music. You are never going to listen to it the way other people listen to it. You’re going to miss what’s valuable about it, because all you’re listening for is what song on this sounds enough like something else that is already in the charts, which is the dumbest way to listen to music.”
“To constantly get that feedback of ‘Well, we don’t think there’s a single’ when you’re the artist, it just sounds like ‘We don’t like what you’re doing.’ Because that’s the only feedback you’re getting. There were definitely times when I was like, ‘Well, why am I bothering?’ I just started to think well, I like it, but I guess it’s terrible. I guess I’m wrong. I guess you could be wrong about your own stuff.”
Mann had written both the Magnolia songs and the songs that would end up on Bachelor No. 2 around the same time, and pushed for a sound that was bit more languid and introspective than the guitar-driven work found on her first two solo albums. “I was in a certain mood for a certain record,” she says ‘There were certain things that I wanted to do. There were some songs that I had started recording with Jon Brion. I didn’t start over; I used what we had. But I knew what I wanted to sound like, how I wanted to finish it. It really was all in the same period of time. There were some songs that had already been tracked that I finished up.”
“The one thing about Jon Brion is, as much of a genius as he is, that he records so much stuff, it’s kind of hard for him to finish everything. There were always these loose ends, songs that had gotten started, or songs that just needed to be mixed and pared down, and decisions made. I never really wanted to be a producer. This was the only record that I acted as producer on. But a lot of it was making decisions about what to keep and how to proceed.”
When she was writing the material, Mann found herself combining her angst about record-label interference with personal concerns that anyone could understand. “When I write something, I try to make it so that it’s the dynamic that it’s really about,” she explains. “Like a song like ‘Nothing Is Good Enough.’ Probably, I’d just had a conversation with an A&R guy about something. It probably did start out as a song about the dynamic with the label where you can’t please somebody. You start to realize that it’s never going to happen. But that’s a dynamic that can crop up anywhere. I think everybody has had that, whether it’s with a parent, or boyfriend or girlfriend, or anyone. I did try to make it relatable.”
The record also featured Mann effortlessly changing perspectives and taking on different personas to keep it from sounding too much like one person’s confession and more like a whole world of characters united by their dismay and disappointment. “It’s like when you talk about anything, you start out in the second person, because you’re speaking about your experiences in a general way,” she says of the process. “And then you switch to ‘I’ because that makes it more personal, and you can sense a shift in the speaker in some way. Sometimes it’s a shift away, because you don’t want to make it more personal.”
Yet as Mann completed the record and the tectonics of record company turnover shifted beneath her feet, the album was nearly lost in the shuffle. “The record was already done,” she says. “And there was this big merger. I was on Geffen and then a bunch of other labels merged into Interscope. We had a meeting with jimmy Iovine to discuss what was going to happen next. And they said, ‘Well, what state is the record in?’ And I said, ‘It’s basically finished.’ And he said, ‘It’s not finished until I say it’s finished.’ And I was like, ‘All right, then I guess we’re done.’ I just didn’t want to go through that.”
“I remember, in that same meeting, Sheryl Crow had just sold something like a million and a half records of whatever her latest record was, and they talked about it like it was this huge failure. I was like, ‘This is not the place for me.’ It was crazy. And they said, ‘Look, we got a lot of bands coming in and if you want to leave, we’ll let you leave.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ When I had the opportunity to get out of the major-label system, I just could not wait. I could not have gotten out of there fast enough.”
Fast forward 20 years, and Bachelor No. 2 is not only a certified classic, but it’s also getting the vinyl treatment it deserves, which meant Mann had to revisit the packaging and, to add in the Magnolia songs, sequencing. “I’m thrilled,” she says. “I grew up in that era, where it’s a big piece of artwork, it’s a nice thing to hold in your hands as you’re listening. I think also with the original artwork of Bachelor No. 2, it was thrown together a little bit, because we were basically, ‘Let’s just put this out and sell it out of the back of a van if we have to.’ We’ve redone it. It’s a take on the original artwork but not exactly the same.’
“I wanted to make sure the record started with the original opening and then start blending songs in. It was just listening to it a few times to see what came naturally, one after the other. And also trying to keep in mind that it’s vinyl, and you’re going to turn the record over and the side is going to start with a certain song.”
Mann says she isn’t one to normally listen to her old records, but she was pleased with what she found diving back into this one. “Listening back to it, I was really happy with the sound of it, I was really happy with the production, the way it was put together,” she explains. “I think that was the biggest surprise. I think you’re always afraid you’re going to listen back to something and go, ‘Oh I should have done this or I should have done that.’ But I was really happy with it. I think it stands up.”
“And I was really happy that I stuck to my guns, that I didn’t stay at the record company and try to play this game of writing a song that everybody thought was more commercial. Because that would have just made me crazy.”
By comparing herself to a dodo bird in the subtitle, Mann, at the time, left the hint that she considered herself a dying breed. Luckily, two decades of wonderful music since Bachelor No. 2 (with another album pretty much completed and awaiting release) have proven that there was a way forward for her without her ever getting ground down by the Hit Factory.
“If your standard is that you’re a failure if you only sell a million and a half records, this just is not for me,” she recalls thinking about the label’s expectations. “And you know what, it really isn’t for me. I don’t know how some people do it. I think being a famous person is really hard. It’s a lot of work that people don’t see, and it’s work that clearly you have to be cut out for. It has to be fun for you to be seen by a lot of people all the time.”
“I love playing shows, because I feel like it’s almost like a magical shared experience. Like when you play music with other people, there’s a shared experience you have with other musicians. But also, you can feel everybody in the room feeling the same thing. It’s just such a lovely thing. But it isn’t about prancing around having people look at you all the time. At least that’s not what it is for me.”