Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of Aimee Mann's "Mental Illness"

The way the Sputnik Music website works, anyone can write a review, but they only choose a few reviews of new albums to make their featured reviews, the reviews they highlight at the top of their web page. Because I mostly review older albums, I haven't asked to have a review featured there before. But because this album just came out within the last few weeks, and because I liked the way this one came out, I requested the moderators to consider featuring this review, and they were nice enough to agree. So this is my first-ever featured review on their website:

Review Summary: If Joni Mitchell somehow made a bouquet of her folk legacy, and tossed it over her shoulder to a row of her would-be successors, Mann wouldn't be the tallest or the fastest competitor in the crowd. But she's the one who'd make the catch.

Aimee Mann is known by most music fans for two things. The first is as the lead singer of the '80s band 'Til Tuesday, where her feathered, platinum blonde hairstyle graced the screens of MTV video fans practically 24/7 with her band's best-known song, "Voices Carry". The second, known by fewer fans than the first, is as the solo artist who contributed 9 strong songs to the soundtrack of the beloved chick flick Magnolia. Mann, however, has actually carved a solid career for herself beyond 'Til Tuesday and Magnolia, as perhaps the premier progeny of the great folk singers of the '60s and '70s such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. She's not political like Joan, and she doesn't do the vocal acrobatics of Joni. What she offers instead is a rich, refined singing voice and songwriting skills that combine unexpected chord progressions with understated but intense lyrics.

Mental Illness is Mann's ninth studio solo album, or her tenth if you count the Magnolia soundtrack album, which I do. It differs from her two most recent projects, her 2012 solo album Charmer and the 2014 self-titled LP by her two-person band (with Ted Leo) The Both, in that both of those are brighter sounding projects. In contrast, Mental Illness is quieter, more stark, described by Mann herself as the "saddest, slowest and most acoustic" album she's ever released. Oh, and one other thing -- it's beautiful.

There are 11 songs on the album, and they tell 11 sad stories, painted mostly with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and Mann's own expressive voice. The topics vary from homesickness to empty love relationships to poor life choices. There's even a song about the actor Andrew Garfield, who Mann met at the onset of his stardom, before The Amazing Spider-Man franchise came crashing down around his ears ("Patient Zero"). The tone throughout is almost as hopeless as that of a Stephin Merritt album. The only thing that keeps it from being out-and-out bleak is Mann's gentle and often self-deprecating sense of humor; e.g., in the LP's closing number, "Poor Judgment", she explains to her lover that falling for him was like "a dream of a car with the brake lines cut," and muses that he stays with her because "The hammer's nothing without the nail." Ouch.

The most compelling song on Mental Illness (and the first single) is the album's opening track, "Goose Snow Cone". Told with lightly finger-picked guitar, soft strings and a tambourine that sounds like sleigh bells, it's a simple song about feelings of loneliness and isolation written after receiving a photo of a friend's cat while Mann was on tour far from home. "I just wanted a place but I ended up gone," she admits.

If there's a weakness to the album, it's this -- as much as I like "Goose Snow Cone", I'm not sure it's a standout. While Mental Illness is amazingly consistent throughout, it doesn't have that one unforgettable "Voices Carry" moment that will keep people coming back to it for years to come to rediscover the LP's other many subtle charms. 

Still, it's an album of delicate artistry, cathartic in its sorrow and vaguely ennobling as we watch its characters endure in painful and/or impossible situations. It's the mature work of an artist at the height of her powers. When I look at other current singer/songwriters working in a similar genre, I find that while Mann might not be as clever as Regina Spektor, for example, or as serene as Julie Byrne, her music surpasses all of the others in both writing craftsmanship and depth of emotion. If Joni Mitchell somehow made a bouquet of her folk legacy, and tossed it over her shoulder to a row of her would-be successors, Mann wouldn't be the tallest or the fastest competitor in the crowd. But she's the one who'd make the catch.

There's certainly nothing flashy about Mental Illness. It doesn't rock, it doesn't roll, it doesn't bowl you over with amazing instrumentals and feats of vocal derring do. So far, though, it's the best new album I've come across in 2017.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars