I have a theory. For the singer-songwriter that’s wrestling with pain, the last thing they want is an angry pool of broken glass to jump into. Instead, they long for a large, soft, luxurious pillow to cry in. Or, to paraphrase Bleeding Gums Murphy, they don’t make ‘em to feel better, they make ‘em to make others feel worse.
Aimee Mann has taken a very bad, and unwarranted, rap over the years for purportedly fixating on mopey, sad-sack tunes of love gone sour and lovers gone to parts unknown. That may be true, but how she’s cast these tales has always been above reproach. Credit her darkly wry sensibilities, her crisp wordplay, and the fact that few in modern music have as innate a grasp of the chamber pop aesthetic as Mann does.
It all comes into focus on Mental Illness, Mann’s latest. Having taken a jaunty left turn with Ted Leo previous to this as part of The Both, the new record is a singular accomplishment on her part in that it sounds exactly the way you expect her latter career records to sound, and still this is never a problem. It is never a repetition of old highlights. And there is an appealing lattice in the particular shroud of these songs.
Another thing Mann exceeds in is choosing her co-conspirators. Having Jonathan Coulton on board to harmonize with and underpin her voice lends a sweetness to even the songs that, in lesser hands, would tip into overkill, pun intended. Leo and bassist Paul Bryan also lend their voices to stunning effect.
It’s hard to throw a dart to indicate the best track here. Once you’ve been lulled into a state of melancholy with the opening “Goose Snow Cone,” you’re pretty much held captive for the rest of the ride. I will say that the plaintive piano plod of “Good For Me” has stuck around more than any other track. I don’t mean plod as a pejorative term, by the way…more as a descriptor. If I was to say “Beatlesque” you’d have a far different takeaway in your head – something brighter and sunnier. But neither Lennon nor McCartney were prodigies on the 88s, and it never harmed them one iota. I daresay Jamie Edwards is probably underplaying here, possibly aiming for Beatles territory on purpose, but it does its dusky magic trick.
I will add one thing, and I’m not joking or exaggerating here. If you are currently in a compromised state emotionally, I would not suggest the album at this moment. Each of the eleven tracks is gorgeous, but none of them are particularly “feel good,” and if you’re trying to spackle together a broken heart or a broken head, this might not be the proper glue for the job. But for those who can take in the album with the right frame of mind, Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness is a warm, plush comforter to crawl into when the self-pity stops working.