At 56, Aimee Mann abandoned the dynamic sounds of her previous offerings for more sympathetic and emotional detail. “Mental Illness,” independently released on March 31, is perhaps her most conciliatory exertion, with the singer-songwriter and compelling vocalist sounding firmer and more committed to sharing her private insights than ever.
Singing out in surrealistically serene style, she is at once dramatically riveting and matter-of-factly cutting. In truth, she could have taken an old, familiar path, requiring less personal significance and risk, but if she had, she would have deprived us of this provocative and indispensable work.
“My philosophy has always been to work on the next indicative thing,” said Mann. “In the beginning I thought about the idea of taking time off and doing something totally different. We could have made another Both record (a musical duo alliance of Mann and Ted Leo), and Ted Leo hasn’t done a solo recording for even longer than me. But I liked the idea of doing an acoustic, stripped-down record, which would have as much introspection as possible, and with no up tempo or rock or pop songs, and not leavening the melancholy tone with anything cheerful. Most of my earlier records have some up tempo songs. But my favorite stuff is the moody and possibly even sad songs, and it was nice to concentrate on that. There was no need to censor or alter it any way.”
Beginning with the opening track “Goose Snow Cone,” an explication of dealing with a sick pet, Mental Illness has an arresting beauty, a series of well-knit stories that carry an emotional and sentimental wallop; there’s truth, power, irony, coyness and hurt — a hint of Emily Dickinson with a case of the emotional vapors. In low spirits, yet heartfelt, a beautiful shade of blue and shadowy, the 11-track effort will not pass out of your memory.
“The earliest music I can recall hearing around the house growing up was Peter, Paul and Mary, and I liked it. Some of their minor songs are even a little spooky. I found the sound of their acoustic guitars and their harmony vocals exciting and hearing people sing together in harmony and hearing fingers on the strings and the air moving around. I tried harking back to earlier folk records and earlier stripped-down records. My parents had an album of Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb songs, and the storytelling was so well-crafted, joining melancholy melodies and lyrics. Songs like “Wichita Lineman” conveyed such a deep sense of melancholy but they also had such beautiful melodies, and that was my goal (with the album Mental Illness).
But that’s not to suggest that Mental Illness is drenched in the morose, for the album — and even Mann’s career — has sarcasm and wit as one of its staples. Indeed, Mann, who comments wryly on herself from the sidelines, has a longtime interest in comedy stretching back to acoustic vaudeville, a program mixing music and stand-up comedy some years ago. (Bobcat Goldthwait directed one of Mann’s music videos in 2008 and she recently appeared as a guest on Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)
“Comedians use of language is interesting to me,” said Mann. “Comedians use language and words and are putting together words in an order that, if changed, make them much less funny. To me that’s interesting. Comedians have a template for language and a great care about language, and we have that in common. Comedians, like musicians, are observing and re-framing language with their own sensibilities, opinions and tastes. One of the advantages of being a musician is that the music will automatically put you in a certain mood before the language even comes out. There are wry observations in my language, and those are not always apparent. Without knowing the person, it can be hard to know if someone is being self-deprecating or if their tone is ironic.”
Mann grew up in a Richmond, Virginia, suburb and she dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston in her late teens to join a punk band. After playing in several splinter bands, Mann started her solo career in the early 1990s. In 1993, Mann released her initial solo album. “Mental Illness,” which has a more evocative title and is more smoothly written than its predecessors, is her ninth solo album.
“With songwriting for me, you have a template in your mind for the kind of story you want to tell or what you want to say. The perfect work in songwriting is that you have a couple of goals, you want to say what you want to say, you want to say the story that you want to share. But you also have to consider the rhyme, and if the rhyme is poor then you need a completely different word to help rephrase the same thing. You have to pay attention to the rhyme scheme.
“I enjoy that process (songwriting) and I see it (revision) as more work than inspiration, but it is in the act of doing it where I find it inspiring, and it feeds on itself. The more I do (revise), the more likely I am to continue to find interesting images and interesting ways of framing things and incorporating things into my psyche.”
While in recording mode, Mann generally allots spare time for reading and thinking and other endeavors and entertainments. She approaches the craft of songwriting with a mixture of practicality and professionalism.
“I wish I was always someone who was scanning for new things and someone who was always staying interested in new things, but I’m usually only focused on what’s in front of me. When I am starting to write a project, or to record, or even looking for a reason to new write songs, for me what works is, that it feels daunting to have a whole record unwritten, so I set a goal of writing for 15 minutes every day. There is nothing else on, and at the end of 15 minutes, I shut it down and go on to something else. That gives it time to pop, or not. If I’ve committed to a minimum of 15 minutes, I have done my job. The goal is not to write 15 songs, because that would be too much, and that system really does help me, to break everything down into small steps, for what is a big job.”
Mann said that at this leg in her career one of her main intentions is to nurture the self-desire to improve. The idealist in Mann intends to keep busy. But the realist understands that it is challenging to attain comfort in a state of unending flux.
“It is easy to get discouraged because the music industry is changing all of the time,” said Mann. “Every single change makes your music harder to purchase your music and easier to listen to for free. You have to ignore that and hope to know when to make a determination of your work. The goal has always been to make enough money to live on, pay bills, and then make another record, and I’ve been able to do that, and I’ve been lucky in that sense. But still, the ground keeps shifting, and that’s a little scary sometimes.”