Pitchfork Review: Aimee Mann’s ‘Mental Illness’
By Barry Walters
Mental Illness is Aimee Mann’s quintessential statement, tempering the discord of life with elegant chamber folk. Mann fills her songs with ordinary people struggling against operatic levels of pain.
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.
Mann has long been an expert of articulating this tension. Originally written about her attraction to a woman on the down low, her 1985 ‘Til Tuesday single “Voices Carry” found its defining shape when record company meddling forced Mann to recast it as a heterosexual melodrama that became a feminist anthem about overcoming male dominance. Yet no one would’ve predicted then that Mann would rank among the few new wave survivors who’d achieve both consistent sales and artistic credibility well into the 21st century. She continually finds peers among younger artists, like Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey, who recreate the smooth sounds and mild moods that defined the ’70s singer-songwriters of Mann’s childhood even as they lyrically upend them.
That’s the era and aesthetic she explores on Mental Illness. A rocker at heart if not always in practice, Mann has sometimes been muted but never mellow; her new wave training and constitutional angst haven’t allowed it. To prepare for her latest, she studied the gentle craftsmanship of Bread, Dan Fogelberg, and other unhip smoothies that punk tossed on the anti-establishment bonfire with Yes and ELP. Mental Illness is accordingly made of skeletal strings, coolly regulated commentary, and minimal drums. Juxtaposing elegant chamber folk against the discord of lives out of balance, it’s musically more delicate than even her soft rock models.
All this is telegraphed by the opening cymbal tinkle of “Goose Snow Cone,” a snapshot of homesickness that encapsulates how succinct she’s grown as a chronicler of lived-in unease. “Gotta keep it together when your friends come by,” she sings in that resigned, yet tight-jawed sigh that’s been her dominant mode of vocal expression since her millennial Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2 breakthrough, one that suits these sedate arrangements better than anything she’s attempted since. “Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly.” Mann holds so much back that when she gives just a smidgen via a couple extra notes, it feels as though she’s baring her country soul, even though she’s long lost her accent. As a Richmond, VA native who fled to Boston in her teens and settled into L.A. as a solo artist, Mann is only C&W by birth. Hers are blue state blues.
So she doesn’t waltz through “Stuck in the Past,” a waltz about nostalgia’s dead end. Her clipped delivery retains its reserve, even when hammering out the title’s rat-a-tat-tat against her instrumentation’s triplets. And though folky signifiers moan and murmur around her like ghosts of Laurel Canyon’s storied past, her wordless choirs are more Laurie Anderson than Joni Mitchell. True to her post-punk roots, she’s still in conflict with her world, even as she renders it tenderly. Pitting her anxiety against a style typically free from distress, the resulting rift suits her swimmingly as it spins the source material into ominous whirlpools. Mann is droll, even when dead serious, and although her perspective on depression is rendered with all the nuance of firsthand experience, her survival skills also sound steely. Although her wordplay is at times cryptic, perhaps to protect the guilty, she’ll abruptly go the other route, as sudden collisions of abstraction and plain speak coil and unravel like snakes slithering and snapping across her psyche.
Juxtapositions continue and compound—the adrenalin addict rendered with a calming berceuse (“Rollercoasters”), the scam artist conjured with foolproof folk (“Lies of Summer”), the upwardly mobile rube who meets a comeuppance camouflaged by the album’s sunniest melody (“Patient Zero”). Then she drops the album’s easy listening masterstroke, “Good for Me.” There’s nothing but a sole keyboard and Mann for over half its length, but it’s obvious from the first portentous chord that her good thing is destined to go bad. She’s defenseless against this hustle because it gives her what she needs, or at least what temporarily satisfies, and so she sustains her metaphors to the end, never revealing if she’s singing about a deceptive lover, a misleading consumer product, or a lying politician. She flubs a note here and there, as if cracking under the strain of her own willingness to be duped. Orchestration enters to underscore a moment of truth that hits as her composition’s bridge slides into unsettling harmonic territory: “And in the searchlight I can see/The rotors kicking up debris/The cloud, the dust, the blades are me.” The strings get appropriately stormy, sawing up and down their scales as if accompanying the twister that blew Dorothy and Toto straight out of Kansas before settling back down. Then the rhythm section finally enters, as if to suggest she’s found her footing while hitting rock bottom.
The rest sustains what came before. “Poor Judge,” the other prominent piano cut, even returns to the deception theme. “And I can see your light on/Calling me back to make the same mistake again,” she sings at the album’s tail end, self-aware but unable to fight the inevitable con. Like Mann herself, her fall guys and gals love too much, or the wrong person, for reasons they’re unwilling to unravel. They can’t get off the Ferris wheel because they like the ascension so much they forget the coming down.
Mental Illness harkens back to “Wise Up,” Mann’s secular, high-pitched hymn about finding the truth within. It slipped out 21 years ago on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, but Paul Thomas Anderson gave the song its rightful place in film history by directing each of his solitary Magnolia characters to sing along to it in a sequence that still thrills and flummoxes. Here, Mann similarly shifts between observer and participant—too knowing to play the heroine, too trusting for the femme fatale—as she ramps up the emotional friction while dabbing her barbed tunes with baby oil and talcum powder. This is her quintessential statement, a wake-up call delivered as a lullaby.