It is hardly the most inviting of album titles, but Mental Illness, Aimee Mann’s ninth solo album and first in five years, is decidedly easy on the ear. Its calming, almost-sedative mood is established from the moment the soft chink of sleigh bells ushers in the opening track, Goose Snow Cone.
Several of the songs here are meditative-sounding waltzes, and with drums featuring only occasionally, there is a compelling, soft-focus feel to the album’s acoustic guitar, strings and piano-led arrangements.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of Mental Illness as a toothless beast. As ever with Mann, there is real substance to the lyrics of these detailed, short-story-like songs, many of which examine the skewed mindsets and compulsive behaviours that can lead us to deceive ourselves.
Knock It Off’s lines “You had your chances / but now they’re gone” are a cease-and-desist plea to a guy in denial about his girlfriend’s decision to ditch him, while the album’s exquisite closer, Poor Judge, laments the heart’s lack of logic: “Falling for you was a walk off a cliff”, sings Mann in that slightly nasal, Karen Carpenter-like voice of hers. “I can see a light on / calling me back to make the same mistake”, she adds later in the song.
Mann has said her favourite songs by 1970s soft-rock acts such as Bread and Dan Fogelberg were something of a inspirational touchstone for this album. You can hear that on its pristine, but never remotely insipid, production and in the perfectly weighted vocal harmonies of Ted Leo, who is also Mann’s sparring partner in their ongoing indie-rock duo, The Both. The prevailing mood here, though, is one of beautiful melancholy.
It is evident in Rollercoasters, a song about a troubled individual addicted to extreme emotional states, and on The Lies of Summer, a tale of an emotionally draining relationship with a pathological liar.
But most of all, perhaps, it is present on You Never Loved Me, a waltz-time gem whose heartache seems to hinge upon four all-important lines: “Three thousand miles / to sit in a room / with a vanishing groom / till it undoes me.”
Like Mann’s 2012 album Charmer, Mental Illness proves that when she puts relationships under the microscope, she sees much more than most of us. You sense that should she want it, she could carve a parallel career as a novelist – but this assured, melody-rich album will do just fine for now.