When Aimee Mann kept hearing her songs pigeonholed as remorselessly miserable, she could have capitulated to peer pressure and started channelling her inner Pharrell. Instead she gave herself “permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic record” possible. Entitling the eleven vignettes of despondency “Mental Illness” was the ultimate acerbic finishing touch.
Fortunately, we’re not subjected to an awkward autobiographical confessional. Although Mann frequently writes in the first person, she uses her own experiences and tales gleaned from friends to establish characters who play out the spirit-crushing scenarios in her songs. Bearing all the above in mind, you wouldn’t expect that opening tune “Goose Snow Cone” was inspired by viewng the photo of a friend’s cute fluffy white cat on Instagram whilst on tour in Ireland. Instead of posting OMGs and love heart emojis, Mann reflected on how it made her feel wistful and homesick. The song itself feels wintry, with Jonathan Coulton’s stark finger-picked guitar line and some jingling bells, the narrator self-consciously chanting ‘Gotta keep it together when your friends come by’.
Much of the album is countrified, folky and stark. Such self-aware wretchedness and fragile despair is evocative at times of KT Tunstall’s 2013 “Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon”. The lyrics ‘Boy, when you’re through, you’re through;/ No-one argues the point like you’ on “You Never Loved Me”, and the shifting sands of truth on “Lies of Summer” epitomise no-win relationships, the latter getting closer in tempo to Mann’s soft-rock heritage. It is also one of many songs that benefits from Paul Bryan’s rousing string arrangements. Album closer, “Poor Judge” swells orchestrally with regret, ruefully conceding ‘Falling for you was a walk off a cliff’ – the heart being responsible for the fall.
Mann has stated that she set out intending to strip the sound right back to a 1970s Leonard Cohen folky sound. Despite the relatively pared-down instrumentation, ‘it definitely ended up more fleshed out’. The songs have plenty of substance and variety, often benefitting from the additional vocal depth of Ted Leo, her collaborator on their indie-rock side project, The Both, or the ominous rumbling of Jay Bellerose’s drums. Leo’s presence on “Rollercoasters” evokes the presence of the compulsive risk-taking addressee, who leaves the narrator rudderless.
Even “Patient Zero”, with its stirring full-band sound and the initially-optimistic refrain including, ‘Life is good’ and ‘life is grand’ reflects on how stars can struggle to assimilate to the ‘rarefied’ atmosphere of Hollywood, based on Mann’s observations of Andrew Garfield. In such a destabilising and disheartening world, when life gives you lemons, does Aimee Mann seriously want you to make lemonade? No - she wants you add a bottle of bourbon and some sugar, and drink whisky sours until morose or comatose. Get on it now.