Aimee Mann, "Mental Illness" (SuperEgo Records)
Aimee Mann plays to an illusory type on "Mental Illness," a serene album of delicate, mournful songs with characters walking off cliffs, stuck in holes and escaping to amusement parks.
Aiming to write the "saddest, slowest, most acoustic" songs as tongue-in-cheek confirmation of her image as a peddler of gloominess, Mann succeeds — maybe too well.
Pulling the plug on the electric charge of her recent projects, Mann's classy melodies soothe the heavy emotional themes but, as in a Philip Marlowe film or novel, the darkness rarely dissipates. The consistency in her depiction of frustrating or failed relationships may well be a plus but, if you happen to be slightly off-center yourself, it could tip you over.
Mercifully, the songs feature mostly acoustic guitar and piano — as well as some billowing string arrangements — but few of the instrumental ornaments which characterized her early solo albums with Jon Brion. Here they would have only amplified the psychosis and neurosis.
On "Rollercoasters," such rides and Ferris wheels are tools of escapism, while "Patient Zero" quickly knocks down any illusions of fitting in and succeeding in a new environment.
Mann dresses up "Philly Sinks" in a McCartneyesque tune that tugs you under as "animatronic bloodhounds bark/the wind-up mockingbirds sing" and before you can help it, you're joined at the hip with tragedy.
And so it goes. You may feel compelled to abandon all hope in the "Mental Illness" inferno. But, oh, those melodies are heavenly.