Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness, her first album since 2012’s Charmer, was released in March of 2017 via her own SuperEgo Records. With this follow-up, she returns to a more musically soft-spoken but still lyrically barbed approach, as heard in the album’s lead single, “Goose Snow Cone.”

Mental Illness shows off Mann’s rich, incisive and wry melancholia in an almost all-acoustic format, with a “finger-picky” style inspired by some of her favorite ‘60s and ‘70s folk-rock records, augmented by haunting strings arranged by her longtime producer, Paul Bryan. Additional players include: Jonathan Coulton on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Jay Bellerose on drums, Jamie Edwards on piano, John Roderick as a co-writer and Ted Leo (who recently joined her in a joint side project, The Both) as a background singer.

On this eleven-track album, the Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning singer remains a student of human behavior, drawing not just on her own experiences to form the characters in the songs but tales told by friends. “I assume the brief on me is that people think that I write these really depressing songs,” Mann says. “I don’t know—people may have a different viewpoint—but that’s my own interpretation of the cliché about me. So if they thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad, and very acoustic, I thought I’d just give myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could…I mean, calling it Mental Illness makes me laugh, because it is true, but it’s so blunt that it’s funny.”

After several albums with Til Tuesday, Mann began her solo career in 1993 with the album Whatever and made a name for herself through her independent success and the founding of her record label, SuperEgo Records. In addition to her solo albums, she has appeared on many film soundtracks, most notably the song score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with “Save Me” landing her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song.

In 2014, Mann joined up with Ted Leo for a more rock-oriented duo project, releasing a self-titled album under the name The Both. Other extracurricular activities since Charmer ranged from playing herself on the hit TV series Portlandia to performing for President Obama and the First Lady at the White House. Named one of The Huffington Post’s “13 Funny Musicians You Should Be Following On Twitter,” Mann has gained a diehard social media following for her quick wit and stinging observation.

Jonathan Coulton

Growing up in rural Connecticut, the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, Coulton had always been a song geek. He played guitar and recorded originals on a cassette 4-track. He was a regular at midnight-movie shows of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (over his bed, he draped a silky fan-tapestry, printed with bricks). And he dug the more humane, story-based breeds of pop: The Beatles, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Crowded House. At Yale, he sang with The Whiffenpoofs. But once he’d graduated, he found that making music was a grind: in 1990s New York, it was all about pasting flyers and begging friends to pay for two shitty cocktails. Instead, Coulton got a dot-com gig, building databases. Now, he realized, there was a whole new way to reach an audience. At 34, married, with a newborn daughter, Coulton quit his day job. In 2005, he launched the Thing-A-Week Project, sparking a burst of productivity that turned him into a cult figure—online-famous, Version 1.0. Along the way, he won a reputation as “the internet music-business guy,” an artist who communicated directly with his audience, having circumvented the kludgy, crumbling music industry.
This was the era when, like many of his most deranged super-fans, I first discovered Coulton’s music. His songs blew my tiny mind: they were equally funny and profound, full of wordplay that kept tilting, fast, into deeper emotion. He had an abiding love of character, a lyrical gift that reminded me of They Might Be Giants and Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann. A lot of those songs were also about zombies and giant squids, a nerdy streak that might, in less-skilled hands, have felt gimmicky. But Coulton’s appeal wasn’t about comic book references (I’d barely read any), but a rare, intimate insight into a newly mediated landscape. He had a few specialities, among them a raft of songs about nice-guy pathologies, like “The Future Soon,” about a resentful teen nerd, and “Skullcrusher Mountain,” from a supervillain’s POV. But when Coulton told a story about Bigfoot, it was about a brutally hot one-night stand. When he sang about a noisy shop vac, it was really about loneliness and marriage. If he had a mission, it was to treat geek culture not as something exotic or silly, but home-like, familiar: it was what we were all soaking in.

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