Aimee Mann’s new album, Mental Illness, isn’t as much of a leap as a listener might initially think. Certainly the arrangements and production are simplified compared to previous releases; however, Mann continues to work with recognizable progressions and accessible lyrics that are alternately evocative and quotidian. That said, spare treatments and the relative spaciousness of the mixes create an ideal environment for Mann’s voice, which has never sounded as overtly expressive. With Mental Illness, Mann doesn’t reach a new plateau in terms of songwriting but succeeds in further elevating herself as a vocalist, a singer with definite emotional range and an ability to navigate nuances in a memorable way.
“Stuck in the Past,” with its simple but rhythmic acoustic guitar strum, recurrent lyrics, and fluid melody, conjures an early 60’s folk-festival or Greenwich Village vibe. In “You Never Loved Me,” she sings: “boy when you go / you go,” concluding, a bit predictably, “you never loved me.” Her hooks are occasionally anticipatable albeit for the most part still effective, though, again, it’s her crystalline voice that carries the song and keeps the listener engaged. The strings on “Lies of Summer” add dimension but are contained in the mix, avoiding any semblance of schmaltz. Mann’s voice wafts above the light percussion and instrumental bedrock.
On “Patient Zero,” she sings: “they served you champagne like a hero / when you landed someone carried your bag / from here on out you’re patient zero / smelling ether as they hand you the rag.” The song doesn’t veer into dark or disturbing territory, as some listeners might expect or hope; instead, the buoyant melody and harmonious instrumentation, along with Mann’s upbeat voice, support her appropriately compassionate and faintly ironic observations, allowing her to avoid glumness or fatalism. With this song, which marks Mental Illness’s halfway point, some listeners may be struck by the absence of a bold psychological, social, or political manifesto that clearly relates to or elaborates on her project’s dramatic title. Mann, however, has rarely presented as an overly theatrical artist, her songs consistently displaying a signature discretion, optimism, and restraint (unlike, for example, the boisterous Alanis Morissette, mercurial Angel Olsen, or moodily confrontational Torres, who, now that I think about it, strikes me as the antithesis of Mann).
With “Knock It Off,” Mann offers a feminist statement, albeit a palatable one: “you should knock it off / you had your chances but now they’re gone / oh baby knock it off / you can’t just stand there on her front lawn.” “Poor Judge” is an apt closer and contains some of Mann’s more eloquent lyrics: “falling for you was a walk off a cliff / dream of a car with the brake lines cut.” The album ends on a wistful note, a nostalgic but poised reflection on the fleeting nature of romance and connection.
Perhaps Mental Illness would have benefited from lyrics that were more self-revealing or declarative—more probing, arresting, or interrogatory. Perhaps, too, Mann could have made more strategic use of minor chords, if only to broaden her melodic and sonic bandwidth. Her generally positive (major) tone, however, reflects her lifelong immersion in the pop paradigm. Listeners who have straddled the proverbial fence in response to Mann’s oeuvre thus far will probably not be converted by her latest, though Mental Illness does indeed reflect a subtle and successful shift that fans will surely appreciate.