Reviewed by: Max Miller
Music of all stripes is getting weirder. Angrier. Livelier. Producers working in hip-hop and electronic music are concocting stranger, more progressive sounds which, thanks to rapid dissemination across online channels, steadily bleed into everything from pop to rock to country. Singer-songwriters under the indie/alternative umbrella are expanding their folksy palettes, with Bon Iver standing as perhaps the prime example — Justin Vernon collaborated with Kanye so much that a bit of Kanye’s influenced backwashed into last year’s 22, A Million. Aimee Mann has been a figurehead in alternative circles ever since she first appeared on the scene with her original group ‘Til Tuesday in 1983. Her career has been long and storied enough that she no longer has any need to follow trends, if she ever did in the first place. Thus, while many of her peers and descendants are looking to the darkest corners of the internet and clubs for a fresh sound, Mann has released her ninth solo album, Mental Illness, a sparse, traditional album that shows that if your songwriting holds up, you don’t need too many bells and whistles.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Mental Illness is its cover. A dead-eyed, Furby-like creature stares eerily at the onlooker from within a dark wood. This critter is presumably a metaphor for the album’s titular affliction, matching Mann’s tendency on the album to confront her subject matter with less bluntness than you’d expect from a record with so plain a title. From the outset of country-tinged opener “Goose Snow Cone,” it’s clear that Mann is singing about alienation without resorting to the heart-on-sleeve tropes of your everyday emo or grunge band. Lines like “every look is a truce and it’s written in stone” have an indescribable weight honed by Mann’s years of dedication to songcraft. The song’s chorus, layered with soft-rock-tastic close harmonies, is like a knife to the gut: “Got to keep it together when your friends come by / Always checking the weather but they want to know why / Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly.” Mann’s economic use of words is incredible, even going so far as to approach poetry.
Songs like “Stuck In the Past” and “Philly Sinks” follow a similar pattern of slow, classic songwriting. Mann says Mental Illness served as her attempt to write “the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record [she] could,” and the results back up that claim. Yet in spite of their surface sameness, the songs on this album each have their own character that stops them from blurring together. “You Never Loved Me” has the kind of riveting truthfulness that only breakup songs written by people in their fifties can possess. “Lies Of Summer” has a distinct rhythm-based focus that recalls the Band’s finest ballads. The (marginally) more upbeat “Patient Zero” obliterates any expectations of happier lyrics with sardonic lines like “Life is good / You look around and think, “I’m in the right neighborhood” / But, honey, you just moved in.”
It’s been a hectic handful of years. I don’t know. Maybe it’s always hectic. Maybe if your life doesn’t feel like it’s being turned upside-down and shaken by its ankles every single day, you should just count yourself insanely, unspeakably lucky. But in keeping up with the chaos of recent times, my impulse, and the impulse I’ve noticed in a lot of music, is to meet that discord with anger, passion and vitality. This year, however, it seems like many records are giving us a chance to feel sad and overwhelmed. Sometimes you can fight back and give a big middle finger to everything in the world — bigots, politicians, assholes, yourself — that wants to keep you down. But other times, you need the catharsis of a good cry or an impromptu nap or a mind-blanking stare at a wall. Many of this year’s best albums, like Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, Pile’s A Hairshirt Of Purpose, Fred Thomas’s Changer and Vagabon’s Infinite Worlds, leave room for somber introspection. It’s no surprise, really, that as an entry from one of the hardest-working, most talented songwriters in the business, Mental Illness joins this same class of records.