I got my income tax refund last week but it was already spent, paying property taxes and buying a new suit. Being an adult is not nearly the glamorous enterprise I imagined it would be as a teenager.
Fortunately, I still have enough money to frivolously add CDs to my collection!
Disc 1018 is…Mental Illness
Artist: Aimee Mann
Year of Release: 2016
What’s up with the Cover? When I uploaded this album, the interwebs decided to assign it the digital cover art for the alt country band Old 97s 2017 release “Graveyard Whistling.” At least it got the text and the songs right. I don’t own “Graveyard Whistling.” I did give it an honest listen and liked it, but it fell just short of shelf-worthy.
The actual cover is a creepy painting that I have decided to call “Giant Chicken in the Enchanted Forest.” If you were to encounter this chicken in the woods I think it would silently walk up to you, look down with that benevolent half smile on its face, then lean over and bite your head off. Not everything in the Enchanted Forest is your friend, folks.
How I Came To Know It: I have been an Aimee Mann fan for years. She is one of those artists I trust enough to buy whenever she puts out a new album. That’s what happened here.
How It Stacks Up: I have eight Aimee Mann Albums. Of those eight, “Mental Illness” isn’t the best but it holds its own. I’ll put it fourth bumping “Fuck Smilers” and “Charmer” down one spot each.
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
“Mental Illness” is an apt title for this record, which explores doubt, confusion and the poor decisions people make when they are emotionally or mentally unbalanced. Aimee Mann does a great job of capturing the rabbit hole of disconnected imagery of characters trying – and often failing – to get themselves straightened out.
At times I’m not even sure what Mann is singing about, such as on the album’s first and best song, “Goose Snow Cone”. This feels like a song about someone trying to keep it together when friends visit, desperate to keep up appearances. Whether the narrator is depressed, insane or just suffering dementia isn’t clear. It is a testament to Mann’s songwriting talent that she can weave this into a lovely trilling melody that unfurls all that doubt and confusion like a flower.
All the songs are carefully constructed, starting with zingers like this one from “You Never Loved Me”:
“Boy when you go you go
Three thousand miles just so I’ll know
You never loved me”
Ending on sad and abrupt notes, often with the melody unresolved and restless. This is music that makes you want to give yourself a reassuring hug, partly because you’re not sure you can trust someone else to do it right, and partly because its introspective secrets call for solitary comforts.
Mann’s voice has lost nothing over the years, and still knows how to flow around a melody, often punctuating a line with an early high note, with plenty of room for her to gently descend back down the other side or trill a little, as the song demands. She’s not a powerhouse singer, but she has a sweet and melancholy tone, and writes to her strengths.
Her previous album (2012’s “Charmer”) has a lot more up tempo and rock elements, but “Mental Illness” opts for a softer approach, with a focus on lightly played piano, and flourishes of cello and violin. “Charmer” is the easier album to love out of the gate, but “Mental Illness” is a slow burn, digging deeper into my soul on each listen.
The melodic structures are very similar to what Mann has done before, but since that has always been beautiful it’s no great crime. She employs them more subtly than previously and so while the album isn’t immediately catchy, it is worth the time invested.
The last song is “Poor Judge” which combines all the best elements of the record; piano driven, with swells of violin that are romantic and tragic in equal measure. Mann’s vocals are low in her register and honest as she admits “My heart is a poor judge/and it harbours an old grudge” as she lattices in broken relationship imagery like “A dream of a car with the brake lines cut” and “leather books and surplus government chairs.” Sumptuous and coldly bureaucratic all at once; you can’t tell if the narrator is singing about her therapist or her lover – maybe both.
“Mental Illness” is one of those records that will require a bit of time to open up to you but you’ll be glad you gave it the chance. While the characters she sings about are not sure of themselves, Mann remains very much in confident and total control of her craft.
Best tracks: Goose Snow Cone, You Never Loved Me, Patient Zero, Good For Me, Poor Judge