The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

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