The first few months of my freshman year of high school were pretty much all about my bright red Walkman. iPods had just come out, but I could neither afford nor wrap my mind around the technology of one, so I stayed the analog course, and every morning, I made a careful selection. It gave my morning commute much-needed simplicity and structure, mostly absent from precarious, hormone-addled school days and nights. Now, I can remember little other than what I was listening to at the time; And few artists or bands exist so much in tandem, in my mind, as do Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, who were on alternating heavy rotation during that era’s bus rides.
It made last year’s news that they’d be releasing a collaborative album as The Both, all the more exhilarating. I’d been following not just their solo careers to date, but also their cultivation of public personas, such as on the How Was Your Week comedy and culture podcast with Julie Klausner (Leo writes music for the show, and Mann appears on it) and Tom Scharpling's The Best Show on WFMU. It seemed obvious from these appearances that they were friends, poised to embark on a hallowed creative partnership. Mann’s vulnerable voice, off-kilter pop melodies, and introspective lyrics full of sly brooding and cutting observations of human truth have produced countless haunting adult lullabies. By contrast, Leo, more the showman, crafts politically charged artpunk fireballs with jumpy, full-throated vocals and driving barbed wire guitar lines. It could work in tandem. It seemed like destiny.
It should seem to follow that their brainchild would glisten in perfect yin-yang balance—Mann’s cool maturity and Leo’s spiky gusto meeting in the middle. However, what came across on the self-titled album caused me to subdue my idol worship instinct. Rather than stylistic wires melding together, they cross, fumbling in each other’s comfort zones. Mann does Leo and Leo does Mann, but the two aren’t really doing The Both. There are clear moments of each doing what they do best, like “Volunteers of America,” a classic, if watered-down, anthemic Leo song if there ever was one. Similarly, on “No Sir”, Mann lifts traces of melody from her 2005 song, “King of the Jailhouse” off The Forgotten Arm.
On the album’s lead single, “Milwaukee”, the two recount a show business fable seemingly inspired by life on tour. “It’s a nucleus burning inside of itself,” they chant over hand-clapping and a persistent bassline. It shows more invention than other tracks which aim to mimic it. Another hand-clapping sequence makes an appearance in the slightly droopy “Honesty is No Excuse”, most of which amounts to three and a half minutes of filler. Acoustic additions like “You Can’t Help Me Now” and “Hummingbird” start out strong, in Mann’s dark-folky court, but unfortunately soften under Leo’s token accompaniment. The I-come-in-then-you-come-in orderliness of songs like these don’t do them justice.
Too often, hopes run high and are doomed to be let down. In this case, the record lacks the visceral connection these two friends seem to have. However, concluding track, “The Inevitable Shove”, represents the meeting of the minds that made their plans to collaborate initially so exciting. Though the track doesn’t completely satisfy expectations for creative inventiveness, it is one of the few places on the album where the two are having fun. It’s lyrically messy, but effective in its commentary on the notion of “making it” in the (presumably music) world, where ego is king and the “inevitable shove” is the reality of rejection. They sing, “no one but you's gonna knock you from the top/ And no one but you's gonna ever make it stop/ Because you can't blame the ones that you love”—always refreshing to hear two industry veterans lay down some wisdom about getting over ourselves.
It would be a shame for critics to get too much into the weeds of whose influence on the album ended up being stronger. Surely, we could all come up with a determination if we really tried, but it’s besides the point. Two seasoned songwriting greats got together to make something new, but didn’t quite get there. Maybe it’s the idol worship talking, but I sure hope there’s a next time.