In the world of the Aimee Mann fan – even casual admirers – there is no bad record. Hers is a catalogue of utmost consistency. There have been risks, sure. Concept albums, soundtracks, decisions to not just do the same thing over and again, and yet, also, and quite remarkably, Mann does indeed often present the same-sounding sorts of songs over and again. Always different enough. Always excellent. She’s got one very good magic trick: an ability to balance profound, universal thoughts against the deeply personal. Well, two magic tricks actually: she then takes those lyrics and marries them to deceptively simple, gorgeous, lullaby-like melodies and tunes. And she’s been doing it for a quarter of a century with always strong results.
In saying all of that there’s something perhaps even more special about Mental Illness, her most recent album – her first in five years.
It works as sampler, as introduction – you could turn someone onto her world and works through this. It works, too, as encapsulation – in less than 40 minutes and on one primarily acoustic-flavoured album she sets out a snapshot of all that has come before, this is every great song she’s already written, dressed in new clothes, sent out into the world both again and for the first time. This is what she does so well – Rollercoasters is Save Me nearly 20 years on, smarter, softer, a bit bruised but also more resilient.
And in Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero she has written two of her finest songs, no mean feat for an artist that is regularly listed at an example of one of the great living songwriters, one of the most influential female solo artists ever, a hero to so many.
There’s something calming about the musical meditations here, a throwback in many ways to the sounds of the 1970s – the singer/songwriter fare that no doubt helped to raise and shape Mann. But if there’s anything soft-rock about this – and it’s more a cerebral, ceremonial folk music, always – it’s certainly not in the weight of the lyrics, world-weary and wise. There’s that sombre, stoic tone to Mann’s voice – and in her writing. And that’s always been there, always going to be there, but on Mental Illness everything is more overt – starting, of course, with the title.
The everyday heroes, the downtrodden, forlorn and forgotten are the characters populated Aimee Mann’s songs. Again, nothing new there, but across Mental Illness there’s something (extra) deep and profound about these musical short-stories; the crafting, for sure, but also the emotional impact.
“Gotta keep it together when your friends come by” – is a line from Goose Snow Cone. A simple, single line that sets up almost everything in not only the song but the album that follows. The nostalgia of holding a snow-globe, or of just holding it in the mind, and then all that comes with it, all that flows through and around that simple construct.
Stuck In The Past is a waltz that never quite waltzes – it’s musical jerkiness helping to frame the unease of nostalgia.
These little things, deceptively simple things, are the tools of Mann’s trade, the tools she’s always used. Every time she chisels something new. This time the songs seem to hang – like smoke – they disappear in a waft. Leaving a familiar trace and scent. Feeling as if they were sent from up above, from somewhere else, from something other.
These are some of the finest creations from Mann’s mind. And that’s really saying something. Or at least that’s the aim and intention her. One of the world’s best songwriters just released one of her very best albums. That will mean everything to some, and nothing to many. Still. And I guess that’s as it should be. But if you’ve ever had any interest in the music that Aimee Mann makes you need to have this.