There’s a lot that I love about Aimee Mann’s music, but if I had to pick just one thing, it would be her witty, sophisticated, devastating lyrics. The woman really knows her way around a metaphor, and that skill is in evidence all over Bachelor No. 2.

Take, for example, “Red Vines”, one of the album’s real masterpieces. The song is about knowing and loving someone who is fun, charming, and destructive, both to himself and to others. (The song doesn’t specify the gender of its subject, but for simplicity let’s pretend it’s a man. Something about it feels male to me.) Here’s the opening quatrain:

They’re all still on their honeymoon
Just read the dialogue balloon
Everyone loves you
Why should they not?

Already we’ve got two metaphors in play. First, the honeymoon — the fun, wild, carefree part of a relationship, an exhilarating time before the real work sets in. But the narrator isn’t part of that honeymoon — she’s observing it, as the song’s subject entertains and charms a group of people. From the first line, Mann establishes narrative distance, and a sense of fun with doom embedded within.

Then there’s the comics metaphor: “read the dialogue balloon”. Again, there’s a distance within that description — seeing the subject as not just a character in a story, but someone trapped within panels, and transparent to the reader in a way he isn’t to the other characters. That dialogue balloon is a way of making interaction manifest as an object, and when we are able to see someone’s words that way, it lessens the power of the spell they might have otherwise cast.

So far we’ve got a rhyme scheme of AABC. Now here comes the second verse to resolve that:

And I’m the only one who knows
That Disneyland’s about to close
I don’t suppose you’d
Give it a shot?
Knowing all that you’ve got
Are cigarettes and Red Vines

Before we touch the metaphor, can we bow down for a second to those brilliant rhymes? The first two lines introduce a new rhyme (DD), which is then repeated as an internal rhyme in the third line with “suppose”, before resolving the rhymes from the first stanza (BC), then another hit on C (“got”, to rhyme with “not” and “shot”) to sweep into the chorus. That is great stuff. Not only that, the Disneyland metaphor wonderfully recapitulates and clarifies the image of the honeymoon — everything’s fun and thrilling right now, and everybody thinks it’s going to stay that way except for the narrator, who knows much better because she’s seen it before. Disneyland closes every day. Honeymoons always end.

Finally, there’s the title image of the song, and the linchpin of the chorus: cigarettes and Red Vines. Both of those things provide a rush, which later fades into a nasty, sick feeling. With repetition, they can do a whole lot of damage to you, but they can also be really hard to leave behind. Everybody who’s had a relationship like this, raise your hand. Yep, me too.

Album cover from Bachelor no. 2

That song isn’t the only one on the album that perfectly encapsulates a rather hopeless relationship. In fact, to one extent or another most of them do that, some more metaphorically than others. Probably the other one in “Red Vines”‘ league metaphorically is “Driving Sideways”, an image that nails the sense of false motion that can imbue doomed relationships. The notion of driving sideways pulls a few concepts together, each relevant to broken love affairs: wrongness, danger, momentum, obliviousness. In fact, more than obliviousness:

And you will say
That you’re making headway
And put it in overdrive
But you’re mistaking speed
For getting what you need
And never even noticing
You never do arrive

Having established with the title metaphor that the relationship in question is headed in the wrong direction, Mann raises the stakes by showing that the person driving it not only doesn’t understand the trouble, but is in fact accelerating it and mistaking that acceleration for progress.

Sometimes the metaphors build on each other, as in “Susan”, whose first stanza ends with a fuse, its second with a grenade, and its third with a roman candle, leaving a vapor trail in the sky. Or “Calling It Quits”, which starts with Monopoly money, then moves to “paid in chips / From a diamond as big as the Ritz”. “Paid in chips” evokes poker chips, but the next line flips that image with a Fitzgerald reference and the idea that the narrator’s compensation is no longer fake currency, but rather castoffs from someone with a mind-boggling level of wealth and privilege.

All of it serves the Mann signature tone, which is hard to sum up in a word, but the phrase for it might be “Well, this all seems horrible.” It’s distanced, but still angry. It’s depressed, but cracking jokes. It’s on its way out the door — she’s packing in “How Am I Different?”, bailing this town in “Ghost World”, calling it quits in… well, you know. Now that she’s met you, she wonders if you’d object to never seeing each other again.

Nobody captures this feeling like Aimee Mann, especially on this album. She knows exactly how it feels to be on the sidelines, hands tied, watching the show, and she knows just how to bring us back to when we were there too.