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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Aimee Mann: Mental Illness

AIMEE MANN: MENTAL ILLNESS (2017)

1) Goose Snow Cone; 2) Stuck In The Past; 3) You Never Loved Me; 4) Rollercoasters; 5) Lies Of Summer; 6) Patient Zero; 7) Good For Me; 8) Knock It Off; 9) Philly Sinks; 10) Simple Fix; 11) Poor Judge.

Bad omen #1: Aimee Mann's new album is going to be called Mental Illness. Given that Aimee Mann had pretty much been singing about various kinds of mental illness since at least her first solo album, and maybe even before that, it is not a good sign when, more than twenty years into her solo career on the whole, she puts out a record called Mental Illness. It's like The Rolling Stones putting out an album called We Like To Rock, or KISS putting out an album called Made Up Again, or The Pogues putting out an album called For Those Who Like To Drink. It does not spell tragedy, but it brings on inescapable associations with a lack of ideas.

Bad omen #2: the new album is going to be almost entirely acoustic-based. While in her live performances, Aimee had drifted towards quieter, less and less amplified sounds for the entire past decade, on most of her studio output the sound of the electric guitar, be it played by herself or additional members of the band, was very crucial: she always had a great ear for tone, and always knew how to make that electric guitar pick on, amplify, and send deep into space all that emotional tension that began in her singing. A completely unplugged performance from her can never have that kind of strength — it suggests whining without anger, light depression without a vortex to pull in the listener.

Unfortunately, all these premonitions come true when you actually put on the record and give it a loyal spin — or two spins, or three and four spins; it will not take long, since the eleven songs clock in at under forty minutes. Mental Illness, Aimee's first proper solo album in five years, is a nice-sounding record consisting of earnestly written and carefully performed material, but it never amounts to anything more than a pleasant background listen if you're in the mood for a slice of lazy, intelligent, introspective, unobtrusive melancholy. The songs simply do not stick around this time: while such highlights from Charmer as the title track, ʽSoon Enoughʼ, and ʽLabradorʼ, still keep me going and I find myself returning to them on a very regular basis, here there is never a feeling that you receive some fresh insight — for the most part, everything feels like an inferior retread of past glories.

Now, perhaps, it's just me. If you have never been a major admirer of Aimee and just find her stuff to be modestly pleasant, listenable, routine singer-songwriter product, then Mental Illness is just more of the same old crap, interchangeable with everything else she's done. If, however, you agree with me that she has been one of the most talented, melodic, intelligent, insightful song­writers of the 1990s and the 2000s — probably in the top five or so singer-songwriter spots from that period — then you cannot help holding unreasonably high expectations, and experiencing sharp disappointment when they are not realized. I mean, after all, she is getting on in years, older than the Stones in their Bridges To Babylon phase and McCartney in his Flaming Pie era, so it is unwise and ungenerous to expect her musical genius to keep re-flaring over and over. But then, in order to re-flare, the genius has to receive favorable conditions; and this idea of going all quiet and acoustic is not a favorable condition.

If you have heard the first song and the first single of the album, ʽGoose Snow Coneʼ (the name actually refers to the facial expression of an Instagram cat called Goose — see, she wastes her time on Internet kitties, too!), you know exactly what is in store for you: simple, quiet, tender, melancholic folksy melodies without any melodic adventurousness. The chords all stay close to each other, the vocal modulation is kept to a minimum, and there is basically just one melodic phrase sung throughout the entire song, with minor variations. Tasteful arrangement — acoustic guitar, a bit of chimes, a bit of a chamber effect with added strings, nice harmonic interplay with the backing vocalists — but nothing whatsoever to remind you of the fire that once used to burn bright and angry underneath all the melancholic coating.

It would be too easy, perhaps, to deride an artist for being ʽStuck In The Pastʼ, as she admits on the second track in a mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-derogation ("Guess I'm the last / I live in memory of vapor"), but there is nothing wrong with grass-was-greener nostalgia for old veterans as long as you got that proverbial fire heating it up; this song, however, offers very little except a lulling slow waltz tempo and a few examples of Aimee's aging, but still lovely falsetto on the chorus — even as she keeps falling back on the same old chord changes that she'd already explored many times. Rinse and repeat: this easy-flowing, insufferably-even, pleasantly forget­table current will carry you on for forty minutes before safely and carefully depositing you on some sandy bank without a single bruise or tear in your pants. It is not a matter of being different: on the contrary, it is a matter of not being able to make a proper difference, coming up with a pack of tunes that, atmosphere-wise, sound like raw demo versions for the same old classics.

On the adulatory side of things, she is still going very strong as a lyricist — this is, in fact, her first album where I'd definitely insist that her poetic talents took serious precedence over her musicianship, and even though the major themes of her poetry remain the same, she is capable of finding new ways to express them, ranging from simple clever lines like "falling for you was always falling up" (ʽPoor Judgeʼ) to morose character portraits like ʽPhilly Sinksʼ (if you don't listen carefully, it's about a broken guy, and if you do, it's about a conniving womanizer). And repeated listens slowly, very slowly bring out some subtly nuanced hooks, like on the chorus of the aforementioned ʽPhilly Sinksʼ, or on the accept-your-miserable-fate refrain of ʽLies Of Sum­merʼ — except that, at best, each of these hooks still sounds like a weak shadow of some of her classic hooks, and no matter how I coax myself into it, the magic never comes.

It is still nice, and each new release from Aimee is a bit of a present anyway, but at this point, after the mediocre work with Ted Leo (who, by the way, is still here, contributing background  vocals), it looks like she might never again rebound the way she did with Charmer — granted, it is not impossible that all she needs to do is pick up that electric guitar again, but it really seems as if her spirit might have mellowed up to the point of no return. Which is not a tragedy, because we still have all the old records, but... sad.

1 comment:

  1. Aimee's always been one of my favourite songwriters, and I mostly share the same sentiments as you re: this album. However - I would've thought that 'Patient Zero' would at least warrant a mention. It seems to me to be the one song on the album that carries some tension to it, with the chopping acoustic and the pizzicato strings that come in. And the chorus is lovely, with that signature Mann way of twisting and smashing potentially-overused melodic phrases together in an exciting way. It was the one song on the otherwise lovely-sounding yet kinda dull where I really sat up and got sucked in.
    Loving your work, as always! It's a running joke among my friends that you're always getting me into new music that ends up being among my all-time favourites (Broadcast, Ween, Brian Eno) and I can recently add Austra's debut LP to my list thanks to you.

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