Aimee Mann has been making challenging music for more than 30 years -- first with ’Til Tuesday, a band that refused to be boxed in, and then, beginning in 1993, in her solo recordings. Her songs are notable for their smart, observant lyrics and strong melodies, so it’s a little surprising that she’s still more a critic’s darling than a big seller. Since 2000, Mann has released all of her albums on her own label, SuperEgo Records, a fact that probably lets her follow her music wherever it leads her.
Mental Illness is Mann’s tenth solo album, and Mann told the L.A. Times it was the “saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record.” Mann’s last album, Charmer (2012), had the occasional crunchy guitar and some synthesizers; this time around she bases the arrangements on acoustic guitars or piano, with small touches that help them build in intensity.
“Goose Snow Cone” opens with the sound of chimes and bells, before Mann’s acoustic guitar shapes the song and she begins to sing the melody. She delivers a description of homesickness and loneliness with feeling but doesn’t push too hard, allowing the words to convey their meaning naturally. The background vocals, by Jonathan Coulton and Ted Leo, enrich the sound, and a string quartet gives it a strong emotional core.
The opening lines of “You Never Loved Me” show how Mann can set a scene in just a few lines:
Boy, when you go, you go
3000 miles just so I’ll know
You never loved me
Her matter-of-fact tone of voice lets the words come through -- she never telegraphs an emotion. Mann’s own multitracked vocals fill out the sound, and Jamie Edwards’s harmonium adds a haunting touch. Coulton and Leo sing a wordless backing that gives harmonic depth, and the string quartet’s entrance halfway through gives the track a larger, more dramatic feel.
At her best, Mann has a short-story writer’s eye for the right detail. “Lies of Summer” tells the story of a pathological liar whose fall begins with a “Picture on a closed circuit / thinking you could rework it / Stole a credit card and ran away.” As the song unfolds, the protagonist’s friends look back on their own relationships with him, and just when we’re ready to judge him harshly, Mann sings, “If the doctor would just sign this pass / I’ll put my hand up on the Plexiglas / and scan your face to see if you’re in there.”
Mann wrote the lyrics to “Patient Zero,” about being overwhelmed in a big company town like Hollywood, after meeting the actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man). Mann’s own experiences there inform the song -- she’s written music for and appeared in films and television shows -- but it’s her ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes that lets her create such vivid characters.
Paul Bryan’s production helps bring Mann’s tunes vividly to life by adding the right touches -- especially his string arrangements, which underscore the words without sentimentality. Jay Bellerose’s subtle drumming throughout often provides needed emphasis, such as the muffled drum in “You Never Loved Me,” which snaps the song into focus. Throughout Mental Illness, more small bits of percussion and other sounds reveal themselves with each hearing, making it an enjoyable disc to return to.
Despite its title and Mann’s grim description of the album, Mental Illness is mostly about regular people encountering everyday problems. Its stories are realistic without descending into cynicism, and the songs are sung so strongly and played so well that they stay in the memory. The intimate production style pulls me in, but it’s the strength of the songs and Mann’s sure performances of them that keep me coming back.
. . . Joseph Taylor