As album titles go, Mental Illness is no less ominous than Bill Callahan’s The Doctor Came At Dawn. But, “If the death of the music industry is nearly complete,” Aimee Mann argues, “you can do whatever the fuck you want!” Broadly speaking, that sentiment, and the general thrust of Mann’s first solo album in five years, were prefigured by last October’s stand-alone release, Can’t You Tell, wherein the singer flagged Donald Trump’s troubled psyche.
Penned for the Dave Eggers-founded pre-election, Trump-baiting project 30 Days, 30 Songs, said composition found Mann (as Trump) confessing: “I don’t want this job / My God, can’t you tell / I’m unwell?” Mental Illness, by contrast, is not about world-stage politics or its players. Instead, this able songwriter probes the micro-politics of everyday relationships. Once again, she’s focusing on the skewed mindsets and compulsive behaviours which can lead us to deceive ourselves in love and/or friendship.
The album’s music is intimate and reflective. Drums rarely figure alongside the acoustic guitar, piano and string arrangements which motor gently, and a compelling consistency of mood makes Mental Illness easy to get lost in.
On Knock It Off, a sensitively-handled “cease-and-desist” plea to a guy still pestering his ex (“Come on, get in the car – it’s over”), Mann demonstrates that balancing act she does so well. Her vocal is confiding and emotive, yet retains that slight detachment that can give a story credence and power. The protagonist of piano-led closer Poor Judge, meanwhile, is in deeper, and sharing that awful feeling we have when we know our critical faculties are hopelessly compromised: “My heart is a poor judge / It harbours an old grudge.” Few contemporary songwriters so brazenly confront the abject horror of not trusting our own decision-making processes.
“Mann is the kind of writer whose songs adumbrate whole novels.”
Mann has said that the soft-rock stylings of Bread and Dan Fogelberg were something of a touchstone for Mental Illness, perhaps reflected in the record’s abundance of strong, exquisitely-sung melodies, many of which gain further potency via the harmonies of Ted Leo, Mann’s sparring partner in ongoing indie rock duo, The Both.
While Goose Snow Cone – with its sedated sleigh bells and strings – is an autobiographical song about on-the-road loneliness, what’s really impressive about Mental Illness in toto is the way Mann, the kind of writer whose songs adumbrate whole novels, builds a unity of theme. To wit, Rollercoasters describes the feeling of “being addicted to extreme emotional states”, while Lies Of Summer, with its Neil Young-ish half-time shuffle, documents an emotionally bruising relationship with a pathological liar.