For the better part of four decades, Aimee Mann has been mapping the reach of the American pop song. Every three years or so, she releases an album’s worth of character sketches, laments, self-analysis, vignettes and musings, all branded by a kind of urgent hyperliteracy in which each syllable and every note carries outsize meaning.
In that sense, Mental Illness, her ninth full-length, differs little from Mann’s other work. The songs paint bleak, sparse pictures of characters pondering loneliness, mistakes and, in particular, their own lovability. The album chronicles the decay or outright termination of relationships of all stripes. In just the first three songs: “Goose Snow Cone,” the road-weary opening track, admits “I just wanted a place, but I ended up gone.” The narrator of “Stuck in the Past” sighs “guess I’m the last/a living memory, a vapor.” And “You Never Loved Me”—besides being titled “You Never Loved Me”—opens with “Boy, when you go, you go/3000 miles, just so I’ll know/You never loved me.”
But to dismiss Mental Illness, or Mann’s work more broadly, as merely a club of sad sacks is far too glib. Rather, Mann writes musical snapshots, documenting the smallest details to convey rich inner worlds. Pondering saying goodbye to a hospitalized villain in “Lies of Summer,” Mann sings, “If the doctor would just sign this pass/I’ll put my hand up on the plexiglass/and scan your face, to see if you’re in there.” Elsewhere, she describes the emptiness of abandonment by saying simply “I know the tumbleweed lexicon.” Because she packs those minimal lines with maximal nuance, Mann creates songs that are paradoxically intimate and vast.
In fact, by eschewing the lush instrumentation of some of her early solo work, Mann and producer Paul Bryan give Mental Illness an exceptionally spacious feel; most songs find Mann singing over a piano or single acoustic guitar, augmented occasionally by strings or subtle vocal harmonies. Those spare arrangements highlight Mann’s melodies—contemplative, longing, vulnerable—as well as her words—solitary, reflective, honest.
Mann has earned her reputation as a master songwriter on the coherence of her artistic choices. As in good short stories, every element in her songs works to support a single theme. Just as rereading those stories reveals new layers of meaning, in Mental Illness, the interplay among tune, lyrics and production rewards repeated listens with ever more intricate emotional textures.