Aimee Mann Traces Elegant Despair on ‘Mental Illness’
By Jon Pareles
Extremism rarely sounds as decorous as it does on “Mental Illness,” Aimee Mann’s first solo album in five years. Since her arrival in the 1980s as the singer and lyricist in ’Til Tuesday, and through her solo albums, the finely self-aware Ms. Mann has written a catalog full of tuneful, disillusioned, verbally nuanced midtempo songs that she delivers in her glumly levelheaded voice — among them the Academy Award-nominated “Save Me” from the 1999 film “Magnolia.” After a swerve toward rowdier, pushier rock on the 2014 album she made with Ted Leo in a duo called the Both, she doubles down on both the quiet and the desperation on “Mental Illness.” Instead of worrying about stereotyping herself, she exults in it.
“Mental Illness” is mood music for a single intractable mood: a lingering doldrums, a daylong drizzle under gray, overcast skies. The songs stay slow and stately, relying on acoustic guitars and keyboards; when more fullness is needed, a string quartet or a full string section arrives. The music harks back to the folk-Baroque arrangements of singer-songwriters from the late 1960s and early ’70s and, even more directly, to the decisively fragile music of Elliott Smith.
Ms. Mann is a formalist of pop songwriting. Verses, choruses and bridges arrive in their proper places and melodies trace a measured, symmetrical rise and fall. As the album unfolds, her narrative voice flexes its literary proficiency, assigning the point of view to first-person, third-person or, often, a “you” portrayed with both sympathy and unsparing detail.
There’s some musical variety. The songs are waltzes and hymns and marches, centered on piano or guitar, strummed or fingerpicked. But nothing interrupts the depressive continuity, the air of elegant futility. If the album has an overarching theme, it’s most succinctly expressed in a song about a semi-stalker who can’t let go of his ex, “Knock It Off,” as it advises: “You had your chances, but now they’re gone.”
Characters in the songs include a fading Hollywood star (in “Patient Zero”), a bipolar thrill-seeker (“Rollercoasters”), a problem drinker (“Philly Sinks”) and a psychiatric patient (“Lies of Summer”), all trapped in slow downward spirals. Ms. Mann can be cryptic and impressionistic, as she is in “Good for Me,” which begins “What a waste of a smoke machine/took the taste of the dopamine/and left me high and dry” and goes on to images of prison breaks and demolitions. But she can also be direct, as in “You Never Loved Me”: “Boy, when you’re gone, you’re gone,” she sings, and the lilting melody line dips with finality on the second “gone.”
As orderly as they are, the songs turn out to be highly controlled environments for the uncontrollable: irrational passions and compulsions that continue in self-destructive cycles, even when everyone involved knows better. “Here we go again, around and round/ we’re babies passing for adults,” Ms. Mann sings in “Simple Fix,” about the latest reunion of a couple that knows things won’t work out this time, either. She continues: “Let’s call a spade a spade, I’m going nowhere/I’m stuck in this hole afraid to make a move.” In “Poor Judge,” she realizes that “Falling for you was a walk off a cliff” but in the end, “I can see your light on/calling me back to make the same mistake again.”
There’s no immediate strife in these songs, only musing and reflection, sadder but not necessarily wiser, and offered with the deceptive composure of chronic depression. Ms. Mann sounds perfectly at home amid the music’s pleasant structures and deliberate constraints. But within them is an intractable despair, something that can’t be alleviated by a neatly placed vocal harmony or a poised chorus. “Mental Illness” wallows in its troubles, and it’s an exquisite wallow.