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The Refined Sadness of Aimee Mann - By zruskin - May 10, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Refined Sadness of Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann (Photo by Sherly Nields)

Contrary to popular belief, Aimee Mann is not a peddler of gloom.

Yet over the course of eight solo albums, the singer-songwriter has earned a reputation for dealing in somber truths and weighted words. Mann’s gorgeous voice has anchored a stunning body of work, including the Oscar-nominated “Save Me,” a sorrowful plea to be rescued from the plight of loneliness.

On her latest record, Mental Illness, the folk influence of 2005’s The Forgotten Arm and the Supertramp-esque “AM Gold” aura of 2012’s Charmer were supplanted with a more subdued, pensive tone.

“Yeah, that’s what this record was conceived as,” Mann confirms by phone from Los Angeles. “It’s what I was really in the mood for.”

That mood, which Mann describes as “super-quiet, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, strings, and gentle space-jazz harmonies,” has led to an album that has garnered glowing praise. Pitchfork called it a “quintessential statement” from Mann, while The New York Times deemed the record “an exquisite wallow.”

In all of Mann’s work, her songs operate simultaneously as small stories while also speaking to something larger. Her lyrical prowess is the reason she can write a song like “Labrador,” where a dog’s loyalty becomes an allegory for an unhealthy relationship, or the entirety of The Forgotten Arm — a concept album about John, an amateur boxer, and his tumultuous bond with a woman named Caroline.

Mann’s newest record continues in this tradition. In “Patient Zero,” she mourns how “a villain ended up with the part / you paid your respects like a ransom / to a moment that was doomed from the start.” While it’s hard not to draw parallels between the lyrics and the recent election, Mann says all of the songs on Mental Illness were written well before Nov. 8, 2016.

“I don’t know if [the election] is reflected so directly,” she says. “I think it’s like the frustration of hoping people do the right thing. … Now, everybody’s just going to spend their time trying to clean up desecrated Jewish cemeteries. The idea of constantly playing catch-up is very disheartening. It’s hard to not be demoralized by it, but I think that frustration is always present. It’s a dynamic that’s very frustrating when you see the spoils go to a person who doesn’t deserve it.”

Mann also confirms that the title of her latest record is not a direct commentary on our current Commander-in-Chief, but rather something that was “partly a joke, but partly accurate.” Indeed, many of the songs on Mental Illness feature characters suffering through depression, anxiety, and other mental afflictions.

Those interested in her take on Donald Trump can instead turn to “Can’t You Tell?,” a song she wrote from Trump’s point-of-view for author Dave Eggers’ 30 Songs in 30 Days project.

“I think it’s an interesting exercise to try to see where you intersect with someone that you totally disagree with,” Mann says of the track. “I think that what was interesting for me is that as I’m writing, this song is unspooling for me. And then where I land is at, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ Like, he really is unwell. Not to disparage people with mental illness, because I have enormous sympathy and experience with that myself, but I think he’s got a bunch of different things going on, none of which are being addressed. If nothing’s being addressed, the prognosis isn’t very promising.”

Here, one can see Mann’s empathy come into play as she tries to understand the inner workings of someone whose actions are on par with a cartoon villain. Perhaps part of the reason many listeners connect with her music on such a deep level is because Mann almost exclusively writes in first-person, crafting her songs in an “I” perspective that renders them immediately relatable to listeners.

This is the secret of Mann’s music: the empathy implicit in the sadness. These are not songs meant to exploit misery, but to offer it some needed company. The outcasts that populate Mann’s discography may themselves be alone, but for listeners, their plights are perhaps a means of comfort, reminding us that we all fall victim to the doldrums from time to time.

The prevalence of melancholy in Mann’s songs is a well-conceived tactic from a storyteller who understands that the difficult moments are the ones to which we can all relate. If the songs about all-night ragers and promiscuous behavior that usually live on Billboard’s Hot 100 represent the escape many of us long for, Mann’s music is instead a poignant reflection of life’s messier realities.

Prior to recording Mental Illness, Mann took a break from solo work to link up with rocker Ted Leo. Calling themselves The Both, Mann and Leo released an eponymous album in 2014 that boasts a notable air of exuberance — aided by Leo’s punk roots — that paired well with Mann’s more wistful, tempered approach.

“I got a lot of rock-band satisfaction from playing with Ted,” Mann says. She credits the experience for giving her the creative freedom to pursue the “soft and sleepy and slow and sad and melancholy” vibes of Mental Illness.

“There’s always a little pressure that I put on myself to try and give a contrast and write some more uptempo songs,” she says. “I think I felt that with The Both project, that was taken care of, so I could really just do what I wanted. I could write all the sad, slow little waltzes that I felt like writing, and I didn’t have to worry about having that pressure.”

Aimee Mann plays with Jonathan Coulton
at 9 p.m., Friday, May 12, at the Fillmore. $35; livenation.com.