Calling an album Mental Illness invites audiences to consider the collection confessional. Savvy singer/songwriter that she is, Aimee Mann is surely aware her compositions are often construed as autobiography, which is precisely the wrong way to view her work, especially on an album as intricate as this. Designed as the "saddest, slowest, most acoustic" record she could create, Mental Illness is a suite of character sketches and vignettes exploring all manner of melancholic maladjustment. More than chronic disease, Mann examines the bad behavior, quirks, and delusions that manifest in everyday life, particularly in the course of long relationships. Heartbreak and misanthropy run rampant over the course of the album's 38 minutes, but the remarkable thing about this self-consciously sorrowful album is that Mental Illness doesn't feel depressing. Chalk it up to the lush production from Paul Bryan and wry delivery from Mann, a combination that softens whatever sadness lies at the record's core. In many ways, Mental Illness feels like a deliberate retort to the bright colors of its predecessor, 2012's Charmer. That record intended to make an immediate impact with its candied guitars, whereas Mental Illness takes its time, riding on lazy tempos and breezing by on soft gusts of strings. Which isn't to say that the album lacks hooks: each of the 11 numbers is exquisitely sculpted, with the melody carrying a sense of subdued drama as it marches from verse to chorus to bridge. These songs are crafted in the best sense of the word, with the lyrics delivering sublime twists that the music matches. As such, Mental Illness becomes something of a balm for troubled times; it's an album that finds reassurance within the darkest corners.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine