More than two years after she began work on it, Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 (or, the last remains of the dodo) is finally slinking into record stores. In the event you're unaware of the significance of this delay, here's a recap: After becoming a cult heroine thanks to the '90s albums Whatever and I'm With Stupid which saw her blossom from the dour new-wave frontperson of 'Til Tuesday into a more complex, if equally dour, singer-songwriter Mann handed in her third solo album to the executives at Interscope, who considered it too un-commercial to release. In one of those quirks of fate that happen periodically in the music business, several of Mann's new songs were featured prominently in Magnolia, which resulted in a highly regarded soundtrack album, an Oscar nomination (for Best Song), a performance during the telecast, and a flock of record company suits scurrying to her door. Ultimately, Mann decided to release the in-limbo album on her own SuperEgo label, first via mail-order in late February and now in stores as of May 2.
It's essential to retell this story not simply because it's a fascinating example of music-biz unpredictability, but because Mann herself won't let us forget it. ''Nothing Is Good Enough,'' track No. 2 on Bachelor No. 2, is addressed to a label A&R man who asked her to write more radio-friendly material: ''There's no one else, I find, to undermine or dash a hope quite like you,'' Mann sings to him. Other songs on the album could easily be metaphors for Mann's career travails. ''Calling It Quits'' sports a tossing-it-in chorus and a reference to a big-money man (''shake his hand and he'll twist your arm''), while ''Ghost World'' is about a high school graduate who lingers around town long after her classmates have left. This is the Mann beloved by her champions: the underdog who writes erudite pop yet has been repeatedly burned by the cold, cruel showbiz scene.
As someone who found Mann's earlier work likable and intelligent but wished a more passionate singer were delivering it, I've resisted abandoning myself completely to her or viewing her as a martyr. Life and the entertainment world are unfair at times, and even Mann's best songs are, for better or worse, simply not the stuff of Top 40. That said, the poignancy of her Magnolia contributions perfectly fit the film's dampened mood, and Bachelor No. 2 (which repeats three songs from that soundtrack album but sports otherwise new material) is a genuinely winning collection of sublime, old-school pop.
That's not to say it's upbeat, of course. When she's not reflecting warily on her profession, Mann is eviscerating phonies no one else seems to see through (''Red Vines''), casting a watchful eye on feckless ex-lovers (''How Am I Different''), and warning friends who have a weakness for feckless lovers (''You Do,'' ''Driving Sideways''). In ''Susan,'' Mann both consoles a female friend for her romantic screwup and offers herself as an example: ''We kissed for a while to see how it played/And pulled the pin on another grenade.'' As usual, Mann presents these observations as if she were a composed adult, even as she makes life sound as if it's forever set in a high school cafeteria.
Yet she also makes bitterness and self-righteousness palatable. Working with several producers, including longtime associate Jon Brion, Mann has fashioned an album that's refined but never dull. Rooted in tempered pianos and softly shifting drums, the arrangements are sparse by the standards of contemporary pop. But they're also sly and nuanced, from the Bacharachian elegance of ''Nothing Is Good Enough'' and ''Satellite'' to the sinuous, more rhythmic twists and turns of ''Red Vines'' and ''Ghost World.'' ''Just Like Anyone,'' which Mann has said was inspired by the death of her friend Jeff Buckley, is set to gentle chamber-folk. It's a testament to the album's success that an entirely different song lodged itself in my brain after each playing, which doesn't happen as often as it should.
Mann's voice a warm breeze with a cool undercurrent can still be too imperturbable for her own good, and I kept wondering if ''Satellite'' would have sounded more transcendent sung by Dionne Warwick. Still, Bachelor No. 2 is a reminder of how pleasurable it is to hear a singer simply sing and not overexert herself. If you're of the mind that the barbarians are at the gates of pop, the album will be the sound of salvation. If you don't feel that way, Bachelor No. 2 can still be appreciated on its own modest terms: as an attractive magnolia in a forest of many different, and equally appealing, trees. A-