Laughter in the Dark
As its title might well suggest, Mental Illness, Aimee Mann’s latest album is one that confronts the listener with a cold dose of reality. Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine in early 2017, Mann described Mental Illness as the saddest album she has made in over thirty-five years of recording. This claim is no exaggeration, since the album finds Mann singing of disappointed love and is full of heartbreak, anger and sorrow. At the same time, though, Mann is keen to point out that Mental Illness also has the kind of darkly playful quality and subversive humor that, paradoxically, can result from blunt and unsparing explorations of the dark side of life.
Because Mann has always challenged narrow perceptions of her as an artist who deals exclusively in beautiful melancholia, it is hardly surprising that even this unsparing album also has its playful side. At the same time, though, Mental Illness does give her listeners a deep insight into the life of someone living through great emotional tension. The punchy pop-rock of Mann’s previous album, Charmer (2012), has here given way to more subtle and somber sounds that paint a highly accurate portrait of someone who attempts to conceal her pain behind a mask of confidence.
Autobiography or Fiction?
So forceful is the depiction of pain and sorrow on Mental Illness that it is difficult to fully believe that the album is wholly fictional. Mann denies the album is purely autobiographical and that insists that there is at least some distance between the protagonist and herself. This doesn’t diminish the power of the album, however, and these songs of loss and sorrow demonstrate Mann’s gifts not only as a songwriter but also as a narrator to whom we feel compelled to listen.