Aimee Mann's crazy, beautiful songs on 'Mental Illness'
Chicago Tribune - 3/31/2017
March 31--Aimee Mann has been typecast as a singer who always sees the dark lining in the silver cloud, and so she doubles down on that reputation by titling her latest album "Mental Illness" (Superego). Mann's also got a healthy sense of humor about life and herself, and she writes songs built to outlast any heartache.
Coming off The Both, a power-trio pop project with Ted Leo, Mann takes the opposite course on her ninth solo album. These are often beautiful songs about being stuck in a rut, the notion that some people's lives are about endlessly repeating the same mistake expecting a different result. That's a layman's definition of mental illness, and Mann's artfully realized songs suggest that it's far more common than one might think.
"Here we go again," Mann sings, "... we've just become our worst mistakes."
It's among Mann's sparest, quietest albums and also among her most beautiful. Beyond her conversational delivery, the singer's background vocals provide a haunting, wordless backdrop that functions like another instrument. Fingerpicked guitars bubble to the forefront of the largely drummer-less arrangements, accented by piano and strings that give the whole enterprise a chamber-pop feel. Little details become magnified: a twinkling bell underlines the homesick melancholy of "Goose Snow Cone" and pizzicato strings bring tartness to the cautionary tale "Patient Zero."
Some may find "Mental Illness" a touch monochromatic. There are no uptempo songs, and nothing to rival the pop energy found on The Both's self-titled album or Mann's previous solo release, the bubbly, synth-accented "Charmer" (2012). But this is a solid addition to Mann's estimable discography, the kind of record that sets a mood and sustains it for 39 craftsmanlike minutes.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
3 stars (out of 4)
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