Release Date: Mar 31, 2017
Record label: Superego
For the better part of four decades, Aimee Mann has been mapping the reach of the American pop song. Every three years or so, she releases an album's worth of character sketches, laments, self-analysis, vignettes and musings, all branded by a kind of urgent hyperliteracy in which each syllable and every note carries outsize meaning. In that sense, Mental Illness, her ninth full-length, differs little from Mann's other work.
It's been (relatively) all quiet on the Mann front since her last album five years ago, and on Mental Illness she ensures that things don't get too much louder. Where previous releases have confidently flitted between electric power pop and acoustic introspection, here there is almost no evidence of Aimee going for the jangle jugular. Consequently, a guitar with a hole under the strings plus a tasteful smattering of violins and cellos provide the perfect framework for her low, confessional vocals and focusing so precisely on one sound palette gives the record the feel of a concept piece.
Calling an album Mental Illness invites audiences to consider the collection confessional. Savvy singer/songwriter that she is, Aimee Mann is surely aware her compositions are often construed as autobiography, which is precisely the wrong way to view her work, especially on an album as intricate as this. Designed as the "saddest, slowest, most acoustic" record she could create, Mental Illness is a suite of character sketches and vignettes exploring all manner of melancholic maladjustment.
The artist whose sense of irony is made of real iron is back. Aimee Mann knows she has a reputation for writing songs about crazy people whose eccentricities and insecurities are the only sane responses to a mad, mad world—like the woman yelling from the audience in her MTV video for 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" or that girl in need of a tourniquet in the movie Magnolia or the myriad of other irrational beings that populate her songs. Mann named her album Mental Illness as a wink to her fans and critics.
As album titles go , Mental Illness is no less ominous than Bill Callahan's The Doctor Came At Dawn. But, "If the death of the music industry is nearly complete," Aimee Mann argues, "you can do whatever the fuck you want!" Broadly speaking, that sentiment, and the general thrust of Mann's first solo album in five years, were prefigured by last October's stand-alone release, Can't You Tell, wherein the singer flagged Donald Trump's troubled psyche. Penned for the Dave Eggers-founded pre-election, Trump-baiting project 30 Days, 30 Songs, said composition found Mann (as Trump) confessing: "I don't want this job / My God, can't you tell / I'm unwell?" Mental Illness, by contrast, is not about world-stage politics or its players.
Over the course of her career, Aimee Mann has given voice to those who aren't necessarily losers so much as self-saboteurs, lovers who bristle at intimacy, who race full speed ahead toward happiness only to shoot themselves in the foot just shy of reaching their goal. “Always snatching defeat/It's the devil I know,” she sings on “Goose Snow Cone,” the opening track of her ninth album, Mental Illness. “Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly,” the singer-songwriter goes on to say.
Aimee Mann doing an album called Mental Illness is a concept so fitting it took her a lifetime to find it. Having already delivered a new wave smash, scored an Academy Award nomination, recorded eight stylistically diverse solo records as well a fiesty collaboration with punk's Ted Leo, Mann is rightfully pissed that she's nevertheless pigeonholed as a dreary fabricator of slow, sad-sack songs. So she's answered her critics with her slowest, sad-sack-iest album yet, one populated by ordinary people struggling against operatic levels of existential pain at odds with their humdrum lives.
After 2014's somewhat uncomfortable album with Ted Leo, Aimee Mann is back doing what she does best - singing melancholic songs of love and loss. Like Glen Campbell, she processes an essentially unadorned, vanilla voice that's still capable of conveying yearning tracts of emotion, and while Mental Illness doesn't stray too far from the beaten path, it does offer something new for seasoned Mann watchers. Gone are the aching electric solos that used to dovetail her voice so beautifully, discarded for a largely acoustic set-up.
Aimee Mann is the reliable troubadour of our age. Active for three decades, her output rarely surprises these days, and rarely proves a letdown. Mental Illness, her ninth solo record, is no exception. Armed with acoustic guitar and high quality but never overpowering production, she works through 11 carefully curated tracks.
Aimee Mann's reputation as a miserablist might be a bit overstated — there's a lightness about her folk-pop that lessens the blow of even her most cutting lyrics. That tension animates her best solo work — the Oscar-nominated lament "Save Me," the gently strident "Charmer" — and it's a constant presence on "Mental Illness" (SuperEgo), where Mann's breezy voice and some well-placed string arrangements add airiness to the lyrics' depictions of woe. "Mental Illness," Mann's ninth solo album and her first in five years, doesn't so much revel in its sadness as it regards it from a distance, sometimes ruefully, sometimes tinged with the slightest bit of hope.
Aimee Mann has been typecast as a singer who always sees the dark lining in the silver cloud, and so she doubles down on that reputation by titling her latest album "Mental Illness" (Superego). Mann's also got a healthy sense of humor about life and herself, and she writes songs built to outlast any heartache. Coming off The Both, a power-trio pop project with Ted Leo, Mann takes the opposite course on her ninth solo album.