Over the course of her career, Aimee Mann has given voice to those who aren’t necessarily losers so much as self-saboteurs, lovers who bristle at intimacy, who race full speed ahead toward happiness only to shoot themselves in the foot just shy of reaching their goal. “Always snatching defeat/It’s the devil I know,” she sings on “Goose Snow Cone,” the opening track of her ninth album, Mental Illness. “Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly,” the singer-songwriter goes on to say. Love may be the answer, and it may be all that we need, but it’s not always the last word.
Mann’s role as a spokeswoman for the downcast has led some to view her work as depressing, a cliché that she winks at with this album’s very title. It’s true enough that the operating mood on Mental Illness is one of melancholy—and not just because of the sad-sack nature of the characters that Mann brings to life, but because of the slow tempos and acoustic instrumentations. Mann has described this, her first album in five years, as an “if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record,” and though they’re not all waltzes, they are all songs about the solitude her characters feel in the wee hours of the morning.
Whether that qualifies the album as depressing is subjective, yes, but I’m doubtful given how funny and often beautiful this album is. Mann based the songs around acoustic guitar but also includes some shimmering string effects, the warm hum of a piano, and the judicious thunder of drums, courtesy of Jay Bellerose; his jittery mood-setting brings just the right level of unsteadiness to several songs, “Stuck in the Past” in particular.
The wait since 2012’s Charmer was entirely worth it, as the songs here feel expertly honed, boiled down to their essence both lyrically and melodically. Like her pal Elvis Costello, Mann is perfectly capable of assembling a song from nothing but puns and wordplay. In the past, she’s sometimes been guilty of tripping over her own cleverness, but she deploys her wit with precision on Mental Illness: These songs are stark character studies, heavy-hearted, disillusioned, and spiked with just the right amount of black humor.
The album’s arrangements are all acoustic, and their effect is one of surprising warmth and romance: “Simple Fix” rides a slinky groove that ebbs and flows with teary string swells, “Lies of Summer” radiates open-hearted melancholy, and harmony vocals cut their way through “You Never Loved Me” at just the right moments. Most of the songs here feel more like pocket symphonies than spare folk tunes; they’re pop songs at heart, propulsive and hooky, adorned with just the right bells and whistles. Like few albums obsessed with broken-heartedness, Mental Illness makes sadness sound enveloping, even romantic, never alienating.
Song for song, this is the tightest and loveliest Aimee Mann album since Bachelor No. 2, and at each turn it exhibits the casual mastery of her razor-sharp pop instincts. “You Never Loved Me” is the most immediately winsome, a tiny masterpiece about how sarcasm and snark are covers for bruised emotions: “Boy when you go, you go/Three thousand miles just so I’ll know/You never loved me,” Mann sings wryly. Then she keeps circling back around to that title phrase, and it stings a little more each time.
“Gotta keep it together when your friends come by,” Mann sings on “Goose Snow Cone,” about a couple whose bond is fractured but who are trying to hang in there anyway, putting on a brave face when they’re around others and choosing to nurse their cuts and bruises only in private. Mann’s best work has always lingered on such private reverie, and Mental Illness is one of her most ravishing and affecting hymns to solitude.