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SAD SOUVENIRS: Like found art, Aimee Mann's "Mental Illness" is curiously captivating

SuperEgo Records
"Mental Illness" is Aimee Mann's new album.
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ALBUM REVIEW: Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (SuperEgo Records) 2017

Putting on ‘Til Tuesday’s 1986 LP Welcome Home on the record player recently, I took in the post-Voices Carry songwriting of Aimee Mann and was struck by the happy/sad vibe Mann delivered on many of those songs.

This was a singer/songwriter being true to herself – as a member of a critically-acclaimed New Wave rock band – and that heart-on-the-sleeve honesty, intellectual depth and existential angst hit home with hardcore fans, but when the “Voices Carry” phenomenon wasn’t repeated on the subsequent recordings, ‘Til Tuesday’s future seemed limited, as it turns out.

For instance, the third track on Welcome Home, “On Sunday,” (check out this live version from 1987 – Mann’s big smile belies what is going on below the surface, if the songs lyrics are any indication: “So your pain becomes another souvenir / and your souvenirs become your world.”

This Reagan-era material was really the beginning of Mann’s truly intimate relationship with the listening public.

And that idea of the sad thoughts are “souvenirs,” comes up again on “Jacob Marley’s Chain” seven years after Welcome Home was released, singing: “But it’s not like life is such a vale of tears / it’s just full of thoughts that act as souvenirs / for those tiny blunders made in yesteryears.” One of my favorite bands, The Connells, would hitch a ride on this idea of the “souvenir” on 1990’s “Another Souvenir.” It’s an apt metaphor (I should note that I used the phrase "apt metaphor" before seeing the "Jacob's Marley's Chain" clip ... eerie). 

But is Mann just a tourist in life? Collecting souvenirs for the fireplace mantle? I don’t think so.

After all, looking at Mann, blonde, attractive and seemingly together (she played a maid on a recent episode of Portlandia, incredibly enough – an actress on TV, and on vinyl, it turns out), well, she has problems just like the rest of us and she’s not afraid to put those thoughts and experiences down on paper and into song form. More on that in a bit.

So, having been impressed with Mann’s solo material, including her debut, Whatever (1993) with that key track “4th of July;” I’m with Stupid (1995) and the key track “That’s Just What You Are;” Lost in Space (2002) with the key track “High on Sunday 51;” and The Forgotten Arm (2005) with the key track “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas.”

And then there’s that Magnolia soundtrack and “Save Me”! Gripping stuff!

Plus, Mann has worked with tons of admirable musicians in her native Boston (Juliana Hatfield, Letters To Cleo drummer Stacy Jones); pop stars like Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford of Squeeze, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Bernard Butler of Suede; and the production of multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, along with husband and fellow singer-songwriter Michael Penn – to name just a few!

But fast-forward many years, to 2017, and Mann is back with probably her most downbeat record yet, the seemingly appropriate Mental Illness (five years after Charmer), released on SuperEgo Records, complete with the eerie and haunting illustrations of Andrea Dezsö, an ethnic Hungarian who grew up in Transylvania – and an artist obsessed with “space travel,” according to this article.

And seeing the work, from the cover to the illustrations in the CD jacket, well, it fits with this Mental Illness project (a title which she describes as “so blunt that it’s funny”) Mann has embarked on – a journey, an inner space journey. In fact, I think the album comes at a perfect time. The issue of mental illness – afflicting musicians, actors, prison inmates, the general populace – is a real issue that more and more people are addressing, and helping in its destigmatization.

Like her fellow Bostonian and pop songwriter Kay Hanley, as noted on the recent Letters To Cleo EP, Back to Nebraska, …the past is quite real, as on “Stuck in the Past” where  a living memory, a vapor … is how one feels with waves of disquiet and muted sadness (accompanied by acoustic guitars, some strings here and there and the most spartan percussion – or more straight drums, as on “Lies of Summer”) washing over you as you discover that certain someone seems to win the argument and get end up with the breaking heart on “You Never Loved Me.”

What I noticed is that Mann – like the aforementioned Hanley – is really looking back. One thinks of 70’s folk-centric singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter (or even Anne Murray in a reflective mood) when you listen to a track like “Rollercoasters,” for instance. Think ‘70s Gold, but heavy on the Cat Stevens and Todd Rundgren and less on “Strawberry Letter 23” and “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Stole a credit card and ran away / back in Louisville they called the play” she sings about the troubled protagonist on the aforementioned “Lies of Summer,” which for me is a true standout and seemingly atypical sort of Aimee Mann song – something that would have fit on any of her albums over the years.

“Patient Zero,” which also features musical pal Ted Leo, is very wordy, but pulls you in with the solid production, while “Good For Me” and “Knock It Off” have a bittersweet beauty that Mann has managed to pull off – seemingly effortlessly – for decades, now.

I should not forget to mention that Aimee Mann is not necessarily the sad-sack persona that these songs would seemingly indicate. However, she comes across as exceedingly empathetic, taking on the cares and concerns of those around her. It burdens her and it tends to result in songs like “Philly Sinks,” where “Philly drinks until the tide pulls him away from the shore.” You can’t listen to a song like that – an alcoholic who is too far gone – and not tear up.

I should note that Mann included something called “Hand / Mind” cards that come across like a mix of Tarot cards and Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. They are very cool and I have yet to complete them. Once finished, Mann said she wants folks to send the results to her. I may do that.

Aimee Mann's "Hand/Mind" cards. (Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report)

The idea of the “thoughts behind the thoughts,” to better understand oneself. And I think that is also appropriate in light of Mental Illness and how Mann is using her songs to better understand herself – as she has done since those glossy days in ‘Til Tuesday.

Aimee Mann is currently on tour and will conclude the Mental Illness tour in her home city of Los Angeles on May 13th.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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