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As a musician, Aimee Mann has long indulged her bleaker side, dating all the way back to her mid-'80s debut as the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday. In the quarter-century since she launched her solo career, Mann has released nine solo albums — not counting her classic film work in 1999's Magnolia — and formed a duo called The Both with Ted Leo. But she's never made an album quite like Mental Illness, which (as its title might indicate) delves into matters that afflict worried minds.
Mann is nothing if not an intellectually lively songwriter, not to mention a deeply funny person, so there's much more to Mental Illness than mere dirges, or waltzes, or rundowns of life's accumulated disappointments. Most notably, these songs are buoyantly catchy in their own way, with calmly dispensed beauty that consistently outweighs their dourness. Take the single "Patient Zero," for example, with its tales of Hollywood disillusionment: Mann hardly brims over with hope at even her brightest moments, but she does leaven the song with wry queries like, "Life is grand / And wouldn't you like to have it go as planned?"
From its opening moments, there's a still quality to Mental Illness: In "Goose Snow Cone," for example, Mann's voice recalls the plaintively angelic quality of Low's Mimi Parker, a comparison that pays a high compliment to both singers. Mann herself has described Mental Illness as an effort "to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they're-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could," and the results — performed with the aid of Jonathan Coulton, Ted Leo, Jay Bellerose and others — reflect that, at least to a point. But even at its slowest, the album never feels leaden or dull. One of the smartest songwriters in the business, Mann is way too smart not to throw a clever twist into everything she does.
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