Aimee Mann’s first new solo album in five years arrives with a title loaded with possible meanings and intent. For her, its provocative branding comes down to something akin to truth in advertising. “It came from a friend of mine asking me what the record was about,” she explains. “And I said, ‘Oh, you know me — the usual songs about mental illness.’ He said, ‘You should call it Mental Illness!’ I said, ‘I think I will.’” And thus, over the course of a few short seconds, was a classic album title born. “I always probably have a little bit of gallows humor,” Mann says, “and I would hope that people see there’s a little bit of that interspersed in there. I mean, calling it Mental Illness makes me laugh, because it is true, but it’s so blunt that it’s funny.”
What kind of pre-existing conditions come with Mental Illness? Some fans will see the album as a return to more musically familiar territory. After a couple of records that saw Mann leaning toward the rockier side (her last solo album, 2012’s Charmer, followed by her 2014 duo project with Ted Leo, The Both), this new one finds the woman who gave the world “Wise Up” again deciding to slow up. If you fell in love with earlier albums like Bachelor No. 2 and the Magnolia soundtrack, the gorgeous melodies and deliberate gait of this return to contemplative form will seem deliciously familiar.
At the same time, the arrangements mark a break from anything she’s done before, even those aforementioned landmark albums. Gone are the Mellotrons and some of the other distinctive signature sounds of yore. Although there are some electric instruments and occasional drums in the mix, Mental Illness is built for really the first time in her career around acoustic guitar and piano… and then, in another first, augmented astoundingly by starkly beautiful string arrangements. Spines will tingle, and softness and bluntness will find a happy marriage in songs that make up in haunting splendor for whatever they might lack in ebullience.
The album’s rich, incisive, and occasionally wry melancholia started with a mission statement of sorts, prompted by Mann’s own slightly tongue-in-cheek take on her own image. “I assume the brief on me is that people think that I write these really depressing songs,” Mann says. “I don’t know — people may have a different viewpoint — but that’s my own interpretation of the cliché about me. So if they thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad, and very acoustic, I just gave myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could,” she laughs.
That’s admittedly a pendulum swing away from Charmer and The Both, which found her gravitating toward the sounds or energy level associated with her tenure in ‘Til Tuesday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “Since the last project was with Ted Leo, and he certainly has a lot of classic rock, post-punk influences, I tried to meet him in the middle,” she says. “Touring and playing in smaller rock clubs with The Both as a trio, with me playing bass, was a real rock band experience.” Now, on the heels of delivering fans a power trio experience, “I think they might be ready for something super-sad and soft,” Mann says, hinting at a smile as she considers the path that brought her to being a one-woman delivery system for mellow gold in 2017.
The S-word, obviously, is no pejorative here. “I was listening to a lot of really soft ‘70s rock, like Bread and Dan Fogelberg,” Mann points out, offering up a couple of acts so far off the indie cred scale they seem like prime candidates for indie cred. (Completely coincidentally, she was recently asked to cover a Carpenters hit for the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s ‘70s-set HBO series, Vinyl.) But “there were other touchstones that we kept in mind,” a key one possibly being longtime producer Paul Bryan’s love for Nick Drake. “It always takes its own form. I just wanted to have finger-picky stuff, kind of like Leonard Cohen back in the folk-rock days. I haven’t ever made a record this stripped down before. Some drums wound up on there here and there, but I really tried to rein it in.”
Despite her best efforts to hold back the tide of extraneous instrumentation, there was an extravagance Mann couldn’t pass up, as the string arrangements Bryan was writing for a couple of songs proved so lovely that they began extending them to more of the tracks. The end result is “not as simple as my original concept,” she says, “but it’s just really hard to go into the studio and not have ideas for things, and it’s so fun and interesting to record real strings. That definitely makes things bigger and more fleshed out, but I hope that the basic acoustic elements still come across as distinct and simple.”
Besides Bryan, the players include other familiar cohorts, like Jonathan Coulton, who has his own album coming on Mann’s Superego label, and who’ll be her opening act on tour this year, doing some of the more detailed finger-picking. Other musicians include Jay Bellerose on drums, Jamie Edwards on piano, John Roderick as a co-writer, and erstwhile duet partner Leo as a background singer.
She has a little to live up to with Mental Illness, having long since transitioned from an MTV staple in her Til Tuesday years to becoming known as “one of the finest songwriters of her generation,” as the New York Times proclaimed her. NPR Music named her “one of the top 10 living songwriters” alongside the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Her last solo album won her some of the best reviews of a storied career. Paste opined: “She is innately tuned into our fragility and resilience. Like the Velvet Underground’s Nico, she’s our mirror. Through her songs, she reflects life as it so often is—a contorted, gasping mess—but somehow she still finds beauty in its imperfection.” Britain’s Independent called Charmer “another sweet viper's bite of post-Freudian dyspepsia from the singer-songwriter who loves to mistrust.” Or, as the New York Times wrote, “The sugarcoated poison pill is a reliable device for Aimee Mann, a singer-songwriter given to ravaging implication and dispassionate affect... That it all goes down so easily seems like a sneaky way to make a point.” Charmed, they’re sure.
Validation came not just from the Grammys, but the Oscars, as she earned Academy Award as well as Golden Globe nominations for best original song for “Save Me,” part of an acclaimed song score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia that ensured her voice would carry to entirely new audiences. Before her contributions to Magnolia, she made a quick, quirky screen appearance in The Big Lebowski as a German nihilist/kidnapper. Further up the typecasting scale, she played herself — albeit, a fictionalized, comically down-on-her-luck version of herself — on a classic Season 1 episode of her friend Fred Armisen’s series, Portlandia. She’s witty enough to have been named one of The Huffington Post’s “13 Funny Musicians You Should Be Following On Twitter” and serious enough to have been invited to perform for President Obama and the First Lady, sharing the bill with Common at a private, poetry-themed White House gig.
Speaking of presidents… In 2016, when Dave Eggers started a project to enlist 30 artists to write 30 songs about Donald Trump prior to the election, the first person he enlisted was Mann, who contributed an attention-grabbing tune with the chorus, “I don’t want this job/My God, can’t you tell/I’m unwell?”
After that, you might want to jump to the conclusion that an album with a title like Mental Illness might have a political component. It’s not quite that topical, but really represents classic Mann, in songs that mostly describe the obsessions and moderately aberrant behavioral patterns that have been the hallmark of thwarted romance from time immemorial. A few do deal with run-ins she and her friends have had with liars pathological enough that they might live up to the clinical condition of the title.
“There’s still a stigma to a certain kind of mental illness,” she says. “I feel like it’s a world I’m kind of familiar with, not only from my own experience, but just people I know who are just trying to work out their stuff. I certainly do think everybody’s got their thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say everybody’s mentally ill. I’ve seen a lot of talk about Trump having narcissistic personality disorder, which I one-hundred-percent agree with, but I don’t even know if that qualifies as a mental illness. I think another way to look at that is, people are trapped in compulsive behavior. There are definitely a couple of songs on the album about a person I knew who probably is a sociopath, but even then, I’ve kind of realized that sociopathy is a combination of things. And I’m very fascinated by codependency, or people who enable other people’s bad behavior or addictions — I mean, I’m certainly no stranger to it.”
Not every song on the album is about such alarming behavior. The first single, “Goose Snow Cone,” may be its sweetest, least barbed, and most autobiographical, simply because it describes feeling disconnected out as a touring artist on the road, as accentuated by photos of a certain someone back home. "I was in Ireland and it was snowing, at the end of a tour, and I was feeling exhausted and homesick,” explains Mann. "My friends have this cat named Goose, and they posted a picture of Goose’s little face on Instagram — she’s got white fur, and it really looked like a snowcone ball. So I start writing this song. It’s really more about being homesick and lonely than it is about the cute little kitty, but that’s the way it came out.”
The sickness gets less benign on other tracks. Being one of the songs about a sociopath that crossed her path, “Lies of Summer” is about the not-so-instant replay you might do in your head “once you realize that somebody’s a pathological liar. Then you scroll back through all the encounters that have just been slightly off, and you see those in a different light.” The song “Rollercoasters” describes “the feeling of being addicted to extreme emotional states — high is great, but low will do when high is not present—and how easy it is to lose yourself in drama because it’s so perfectly distracting.” “Knock It Off” is an advisory to a guy whose lying caused a breakup, but who the lyrics describe as “just stand(ing) there on her front lawn,” like Lloyd Dobler, but not as cute. “That intersects with what people think of it as the sort of cinematic/romantic moment, hoisting the boom box over your head. It’s crazy behavior! It’s not taking no for an answer, which is not a great trait in a relationship.”
The theme of not being able to break bad patterns pops up recurringly in the lyrics of Mental Illness. Isn’t the clichéd meaning of insanity doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? It’s the human condition, to an extent, but Mann is more hopeful about breaking these cycles than some of the still-fogged-in narrators of her songs, like the woman in the final number, “Poor Judge,” who “can see a light on… calling me back to the same mistake.”
“The general topic of mental illness is something I’m interested in because there are ways in which it’s like addiction, in that parts of it are compulsive and seem beyond your control,” says Mann. “But there’s always something that you can do or try to help yourself to better the situation, even if it’s just taking your medicine or exercising if you’re depressed. And I guess I find that encouraging, even if it’s a small chink in that armor. You know, I never think it’s completely hopeless. And I think that’s the good news about personal responsibility — that there’s always something you can control.”
And if her songs aren’t nearly so solution-oriented as all that? After all, the song “Simple Fix” suggests there’s no such thing, with Mann sounding a bit fatalistic when she describes us all as “babies passing for adults/Who’ve loaded up their catapults/And can’t believe the end results/So here we go again.” But, says Mann, “I think that the most interesting point at which is a song gets written is the lament before the solution is either thought of or implemented. The hope in the songs is probably just in talking about it. Sometimes there’s a benefit in just saying, ‘I give up, I can’t go on,’ and then having that moment before then you go on.
Some might think Mann just a little bit crazy — for lack of a more sensitive word — for making a record this soft-spoken in a climate where everyone has to yell ever-louder to get attention. Or for almost boasting about its anti-cheeriness at a time when the social clock of half the nation is already stuck at approximately half-past-wristcutting. But to her, it’s really upbeat, if only to help listeners feel like they’ve found their tribe: “I think people like to think somebody understands the more difficult things that they go through.”
And as for the literally downbeat aspects of putting out an album this slow and stolidly beautiful in the age of BPM and clanging: “Part of that is like, why not? Because there’s a certain liberated feeling — if the death of the music business is nearly complete, you can really do whatever the fuck you want!” Saner words may never have been spoken.