If there’s ever been any doubt as to Mann’s poetic sensibilities, let them be laid to rest.
Aimee Mann remains one of those artists who has had few if any missteps in her career. Her brief but remarkable time as a member of ‘Til Tuesday is untouchable and her solo output (including a record with pal Ted Leo as The Both) proves that she’s unafraid of risk. On this latest offering, Mann’s music and lyrics most often recall the golden era of the singer-songwriter, however not those from the Joni Mitchell school. Instead, the material here most often recalls the well-made works of Bread and Dan Fogelberg. Though some would hesitate to let those influences in or even acknowledge them, there’s an undeniable charm to that style of writing – the earnestness, the focused, measured arrival of lines that speak the truths we all know but often struggle to acknowledge. If either of those aforementioned acts could ever be accused of cloying sentimentality, don’t worry, there’s none of that here.
Though everything here can broadly be placed in the category of love songs, they’re not always predictable in their takes on the subject. There’s a you-and-me in “Lies of Summer,” but the subject matter runs deeper than the hope that love lost will be reclaimed or even an accounting of the wrongs done. “Patient Zero” feels momentarily sunny compared to its counterparts, but there’s a darkness that lurks behind the uplift of the chorus and Mann’s never-more-gorgeous voice. It’s a song about someone climbing the social ladder, one lie at a time, only to find that what waits at the top can’t be all that he hoped for. If there’s ever been any doubt as to Mann’s poetic sensibilities, let them be laid to rest with this song alone.
The same might be said for “Rollercoasters,” which invites us to contemplate the distance between “please” and “pleas” in the heart of a song that occasionally recalls Dave Loggins’1974 hit “Please Come to Boston,” though this one doesn’t strive to be as sweet or baldly sad as its predecessor. “You Never Loved Me” stings and smarts despite its gentle acoustic strums and heavenly “ooohs.” Mann has always excelled at capturing the emotions that run darker than we care to think, that hurt worse than we’d ever let on, that are more complicated than the versions we tell our friends.
That sophistication and understanding accounts for some of her longevity. But honesty alone can’t do the trick. Instead, it’s her marriage of the easy-to-sing and hard-to-speak. It works so well with her because no matter what, she never sounds like she’s baring her teeth or sinking deep into our skin, even when she is. There’s something that smarts about the recognition that our lives are built on empty ideals, emptier ties and a sense that that moment of acknowledgment may be the saddest part of all.
Despite this, the subject matter can’t keep us from embracing the songs for their simple and unmistakable beauty, including “Stuck in the Past” and “Knock It Off.” Both of these songs suggest that nothing on Mental Illness will wear out its welcome any time soon, nor will Mann. It’s difficult to do any kind of writing that endures and if we’re to believe the superficial analysis of the day, that’s a feat especially difficult in our time. Yet Mann does that here just as she has many times before. Maybe some of that comes down to the artist being herself, pursuing what she deems correct, ahead or in spite of trends that swim around her. In the end, fashion doesn’t count for much. It’s the song that remains an enduring measure of truth.