By Eli Shively, General Manager
Key Tracks: “Goose Snow Cone,” “Good for Me”
At first glance, an album title like Mental Illness seems overly flashy and perhaps a little misguided. The term’s current status as a social and artistic buzzword may leave the impression that Aimee Mann is milking it for its eye-catching power, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Mann isn’t romanticizing mental trauma or wielding empty words in an attempt to add fake-depth to her work. When looked at in a vacuum, Mental Illness appears to be less of a rooftop cry and more of a well-stated summation of both the topics covered on the record and Mann’s style of songwriting itself.
This is due in large part to Mann’s well-developed lyrical prowess and ability to convey tone through her vocal performance. These talents are what make Mann’s songs feel believable and earnest — she shies away from the melodramatic potential of her chosen subject matter, instead choosing to let certain situations and feelings speak for themselves. “Gotta keep it together when your friends come by / Always checking the weather but they wanna know why” from the opener “Goose Snow Cone” sets a perfect example within the album’s opening minute, leaving the listener with a few key details and allowing them to piece a situation together for themselves.
An equal amount of attention should be paid to Mann’s superb command of vocal melody and how it presents the aforementioned lyrics to the listener in the right way at the right time. Her singing is meditative and wistful first, appealing to the ear second, but strikes a good balance between the two which is sure to earn her plenty of well-deserved Elliot Smith comparisons. Despite this, she refuses to keep things simple, often relying on harmonies and backing vocals to beef up her arrangements a bit. “Good For Me,” the record’s most well-formed track, benefits quite a bit from both of those things as well as the strings that come in about halfway through.
The most impressive thing about Mental Illness, however, is its length. At 38 minutes, it beckons those looking for a more reasonably sized (but still relatively deep) portion of softer indie — which is especially welcome in a year where some of the most notable folk records are the monstrosities put out by Sun Kil Moon and The Magnetic Fields. Mental Illness does exactly what it sets out to do, gives us some of Mann’s best work to date, and best of all pulls no punches in doing so. Just as the title would suggest.