Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
The great English folk singer, Shirley Collins, described her style of singing as one averse to over-decoration and dramatising, where “there is huge compassion there, but very little sentimentality”.
There’s a lot of Aimee Mann in that description.
A generation younger, a pop artist rather than folk, and an ocean and full continental distance from Collins, Mann is an acute observer of human relationships. But more specifically she is a perceptive chronicler of how individuals fail in those relationships: insecurity and inarticulateness, or misreading and over articulateness; instinctive responses cutting in early or overcalculated ones pre-empting chance; self-deceptions, self-denials, self-help.
Her approach to these characters – some of whom she inhabits; some she sits behind - is in keeping with her tempos (slow to mid-pace, with a fondness for a waltz), her singing (measured, deep and warm) and her arrangements (rarely indulging in flourishes).
That is, understanding and compassion that isn’t burdened with over dramatising or sentimentality, balanced by a willingness to tell truth to sour behaviour.
It’s why you can see yourself, and your weaknesses, in one of her songs and not feel attacked, and why you can recognise the people in them and not feel a voyeur, but also know that Mann seems to get them/us and isn’t going to let the worst slide by.
Mental Illness pull together a collection of regular, flawed people whose problems probably won’t amount to a hill of beans past their front doors, but the impact of these problems on these people ranges from dislocating to seismic.
From the always slightly out-of-place narrator in the opening Goose Snow Cone (a gorgeously mellow, irresistibly attractive song which I know will be one of my favourites of the year) and the dreamer who is never going to realise it in Patient Zero, to the lover who knows her fate in the closing Poor Judge, there’s life’s minutae laced through these songs.
And as ever Mann sings about them with enough care to suggest concern and plenty of depth in her tone, but no frippery beyond that, backing vocals bringing the careworn (Rollercoasters), some sprinkled sugar (You Never Loved Me) or casual elegance (Knock It Off)
That approach is mirrored in the sound of the record which, from its irregular but adroitly deployed strings to the airiness of the atmosphere in even the greyest moment, feels intimate.
Her last solo album, Charmer, and her most recent side project, The Both, with Ted Leo (who is here on backing vocals) were more guitar driven and up-tempo(ish). Mental Illness returns to Mann’s core musical constituency of muted 70s pop where sublime melodies insinuate.
These are tunes which cruise on cushioned hydraulics as the drums shuffle rather than drive, acoustics dominate but never fix the songs or the album in some standard singer/songwriter patch, and piano becomes the instrument which anchors it all.
They are above all the most attractive songs about never quite solving, or never wholly understanding, the world you can find. And yes, they are delivered with care and compassion.