From the artist who bought you the dourly titled albums “Whatever”, “I’m With Stupid” and “@#%&*! Smilers” comes “Mental Illness”. Let’s face it, that’s hardly the snappiest title for an album, is it? Wouldn’t it have been great to be a fly on the wall of that marketing meeting?
For her ninth album, Ms Mann has stowed the nasty electric guitars and horribly loud drums in the cupboard under the stairs and stripped everything back to (mainly) her voice, acoustic guitar and some beautifully arranged strings. Fortunately, these songs are so strong that they hold up well to such a minimal approach. Melancholy never sounded so good.
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On “Mental Illness”, Mann is inviting us to share her dark night of the soul. But it’s not that dark. It’s not “Pink Moon” or “OK Computer” dark. It’s a kind of comforting melancholy that you can immerse yourself in for a shade under forty minutes, but it won’t leave you permanently scarred. But this isn’t just make-out music for Generation X-ers… there’s a kind of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” vibe about this album, but poppier. In a good way.
Given the subject matter Mann is tackling on this release (nostalgia, displacement and deceit all crop up) it would have been really easy to indulge herself in some overly limpid, hand wringing marathon. Not so. The melodies are as robust and memorable as ever, even when she’s singing lines like “I’ll pretend I’m surprised by the lies that I’m telling to myself” (“Good For Me”) and “We’ve just become our worst mistakes” (“Simple Fix”).
A couple of tracks elbow their way to the top of the pile. “Poor Judge” reaches all the way back to “Tapestry” era Carole King to tell a tale of a doomed, self-destructive and cyclical relationship over a beautifully measured backing of piano and strings. With “You Never Loved Me” (a song which combines so many typical Aimee Mann traits that it could almost be a parody if it wasn’t so beautiful) you find yourself singing along, without noticing how crushingly bleak the lyric is.
Aimee Mann could have cranked out the laptop, loaded up some sick beats and gone all 2017 on us. Maybe that’s her next album – you can’t rule it out. But she didn’t. She cut everything away and just left the songs remaining. This is not a flash album, there are no virtuoso flourishes by any of the players. Every note has been carefully positioned to frame her voice in a sympathetic and supportive way and recorded simply and elegantly.
The world probably didn’t need an album of downbeat melancholia right now, when every day brings some new global crisis to keep us from a good night’s sleep, but that’s the album she’s made. So dive in, have a wallow and a little cry and resurface refreshed. You’ll feel better for it – after all, it’s a tough old world. Just ask Aimee Mann.