Queens Of The Summer Hotel (SuperEgo)
The line between conformity, sublimination and therefore acceptance, and then the “inexplicable” choices that lead to a declaration that you are a danger to yourself – but more importantly, to proper community – has long been a very fine one for women to navigate.
As Aimee Mann sings in one track here, “you don’t have the room to make mistakes” when the medical system, in particular mental health institutions, have been used to bludgeon recalcitrant or merely different women for centuries, and even in supposedly more refined times you can still hear its echo in the dismissal of “angry” or “hysterical” women.
The 1993 New York Times review of Girl, Interrupted pithily summed it up as “When women are angry at men, they call them heartless. When men are angry at women, they call them crazy. Sometimes it doesn’t stop there.”
The songs on Queens Of The Summer Hotel, Mann’s 10th album, were conceived for a deferred stage musical version of Girl, Interrupted, based on Susanna Kaysen’s self-described “anthropologist in the loony bin” book on her experiences in a mental hospital in the late 1960s.
Kaysen’s dry tone masking what she has called her great “rage”, the empathy and clarity offer observations of staff and patients, is not a million miles away from one of Mann’s great strengths as a songwriter. And nor is the subject matter unfamiliar to Mann’s fans, not just because her previous album was called Mental Illness, but because Mann has regularly explored the land between peace and understanding and its shaky status as safer ground.
To quote another line from this new album, “And that’s the last thing holding you in/The universe’s delicate skin”. And this may include Mann’s recent physical health complications which prevented her from writing and performing for some time, and still prevents her from working comfortably with volume.
So making a virtue of necessity maybe for one of the few contemporary songwriters not just comfortable but eager to engage with waltz time, this record is a light baroque-pop album of piano and voice augmented by woodwind and strings, some unobtrusive bass and very rare drums. It centres Mann’s warm, empathic and nuanced voice but enhances it with touches that make you feel as if the observations and the people detailed, like the songs themselves, are not just finely drawn but connected.
Within these stories of depression – both naturally arising and constructed by outsiders actively undermining – and poignant intimacy, wry observation and incomprehension, self-harm and suicide, Mann never wallows, but nor does she skip over the common fault lines in families and society that tip these women into such institutions.
(And men, yes. The hospital Kaysen was sent to had also housed the musician Ray Charles and the poet Robert Lowell, the latter of them captured in one track here, a story of emotional bifurcation, alongside another survivor, Sylvia Plath.)
None of this is in any way hard to listen to by the way. There’s such delicacy and grace in a song like You Don’t Have The Room, whose arrangement seems to nod to Gordon Jenkins’ subtle underscores for mid-period Sinatra, or Burn It Out, which has equal droplets of The Left Banke and a benign John Cale, while In Mexico may throw you back to Golden Brown briefly, and You’re Lost is pure balm.
And then sometimes the combinations can bring you up short if you step behind the curtain. Take Give Me Fifteen, which has a spring in its rhythmic step, the jauntiness of the electroshock staff fixing the little ladies (“women are so simple after all”) in stark contrast to both the brutality of the methods (“Women who complain about the time they’re seen/Sing a different tune when they’re on Thorazine”) and indifference to their own callousness.
But even then, there is something that anyone already familiar with Aimee Mann would know: an ability to make you feel without demanding that you do. To have you understand without pushing an explanation on you. And with tunes that last, and last.
She is not just good, she’s great.