Not so much a concept album as a sonic assemblage of soulful vignettes, Arm named after a boxing strategy in which the fighter keeps an arm hidden for a surprise uppercut charts the journey of ex-boxer and dope fiend John and his love, Caroline, as they travel the North American highways in search of love, redemption, and, in John's case, a fix. And though the album is dedicated to "the alcoholic and addict who still suffers," Mann credits its creation to more than a simple need to explore addiction. "I've always been fascinated by why people do what they do," she says. "Everybody has a friend who is more out of control than anyone else. And regardless of what their obsession is, all addictions stem from some kind of trauma."
Trauma, emotional more than physical, is a motif easily found in Mann's work, a rich melancholy tapestry stretching back to the 1980s, when she first surfaced as the spiky-haired siren behind new-wave act 'Til Tuesday. Although the band scored with its hit "Voices Carry," it was not long before Mann embarked on what has became a critically acclaimed solo career, though one marred by bitter in-fighting with several labels, including monolithic Geffen Records. "I look back now on my days in the major-label system and I'm thankful to be liberated, especially at a time when the system is crumbling," Mann says. Her official sayonara to the labels came in 1999, when she formed SuperEgo Records, under which she released her fourth album, Bachelor No. 2. The album had been shelved by Geffen until Mann added more radio-friendly material, something she doesn't aim for or hope to master. "I don't necessarily think it's a songwriter's job to be an entertainer," she says, though her most acclaimed work, the Magnolia motion picture soundtrack, netted her an Oscar nomination. "I'm not into music as a consumer. A songwriter should share their outlook with a measure of honesty, the hope being that they care about what they're writing about."
Mann's indifference to contemporary music is made ironic by Arm's folksy, piano-driven rock sound, a concerted departure for Mann. "Lost in Space [her 2002 studio release] was an insular album concerned with isolation and disconnection. With the new album, I wanted to record a rock album, something lively, immediate. After Space, I was ready for a change." And her hopes for the record? "I avoid reviews," she says. "I just try to stay as positive as possible and hope that the fans like it enough to allow me to make another one." The assumption being, of course, that even if they don't, she'll do it anyway.