Aimee Mann’s newest album Mental Illness is not entirely about mental illness. There are certain songs that focus on mental illness, of course. One of the album’s highlights, “Patient Zero,” aptly describes the confusion and struggle of trying to reassure yourself that you have your act together when you actually don’t. But even that, the lyrics are so universal and overarching that it’s easy to read the song as more of mental instability than mental illness, which can only be seen as a testament to Mann’s wonderful songwriting skills. The songs that aren’t about mental stability are about lost loves, the nostalgic past, an inability to properly fit in an area one should fit in, and so on and so forth. No matter the subject matter, the overall mood of the album is sad. Even the happier or more upbeat songs still have a tinge of sadness due to the harmonies and lilting strings.
The album is certainly good. The beautiful lyrics and lilting harmonies make each song a relaxed ode on sadness and melancholy. However, not that much new is brought to the table. It’s very soft and folky, the sort of music that plays in the background of Gilmore Girls as Rory stands in the rain after an emotional scene (“Knock It Off” in particular has a hilariously Gilmore Girls-ish opening ten seconds). These slow acoustic guitar ballads with sad harmonies and occasional sad piano or strings aren’t really anything new. It’s the scourge of sad mixtapes. Plenty of singer-songwriters have used this strategy and plenty more will use the strategy until the end of time.
However, Aimee Mann gets a pass simply because she’s Aimee Mann. She’s been using this strategy and making songs that follow these styles and patterns since the 1990s. Mental Illness is Mann’s ninth solo album so she’s old hat at this. Mann keeps the album from sounding too cloyingly indie and depressingly sad. She lets the songs breathe, giving them space in the arrangements. The album as a whole sounds sparse, a perfect sound for the sadness she’s trying to convey. There’s no big, swelling incongruous ballad about depression with tons of strings and powerhouse vocals. Mann’s mood expertly matches her lyrics. The songs sound isolated, a constant vocal line and guitar occasionally supported by light harmonies, strings, or piano. I don’t know if I could call her a trailblazer for melancholic guitar and harmonies songs, but it’s well worn ground for her.
The highlight of the album is the opening track and lead single “Goose Snow Cone.” The violins, guitar, and harmonies expertly blend together for a downright beautiful sound, the violins creeping in every now and then to support the vocals and repeating guitar line. The bells leading in might seem like an odd choice, but they keep the song grounded and steady, providing a contrast to the ethereal sound and the nebulous lyrics (what even IS a goose snow cone anyway?). The lyrics are beautifully simple, tapping into the almost universal experience of trying to keep yourself together despite overwhelming odds otherwise.
All in all, Mental Illness provides a body of work that’s comforting, calm, without straying too far from the familiar. Aimee Mann gives us a body of work that doesn’t really give us anything new, but superbly treads previously established territory.