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Review: Aimee Mann, 'Mental Illness'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still at the bottom of the page.

Aimee Mann, <em>Mental Illness</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

As a musician, Aimee Mann has long indulged her bleaker side, dating all the way back to her mid-'80s debut as the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday. In the quarter-century since she launched her solo career, Mann has released nine solo albums — not counting her classic film work in 1999's Magnolia — and formed a duo called The Both with Ted Leo. But she's never made an album quite like Mental Illness, which (as its title might indicate) delves into matters that afflict worried minds.

Mann is nothing if not an intellectually lively songwriter, not to mention a deeply funny person, so there's much more to Mental Illness than mere dirges, or waltzes, or rundowns of life's accumulated disappointments. Most notably, these songs are buoyantly catchy in their own way, with calmly dispensed beauty that consistently outweighs their dourness. Take the single "Patient Zero," for example, with its tales of Hollywood disillusionment: Mann hardly brims over with hope at even her brightest moments, but she does leaven the song with wry queries like, "Life is grand / And wouldn't you like to have it go as planned?"

From its opening moments, there's a still quality to Mental Illness: In "Goose Snow Cone," for example, Mann's voice recalls the plaintively angelic quality of Low's Mimi Parker, a comparison that pays a high compliment to both singers. Mann herself has described Mental Illness as an effort "to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they're-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could," and the results — performed with the aid of Jonathan Coulton, Ted Leo, Jay Bellerose and others — reflect that, at least to a point. But even at its slowest, the album never feels leaden or dull. One of the smartest songwriters in the business, Mann is way too smart not to throw a clever twist into everything she does.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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