Sufjan Stevens has just announced the release of Planetarium, his long-in-the-works collaboration with Bryce Dessner, Nico Mulhy and James McAlister. Stevens and his cohorts premiered much of the music from Planetarium live in 2013, and it sounds like nothing he’s done. The first single, “Saturn,” is so outside the realm of anything I’ve heard from Stevens that it feels like exploring space itself.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I love it when artists light out for new territories. Many of my favorite songwriters are also chameleons, shape-shifting from album to album, shedding skin and emerging fully formed as a whole new beast. I love that quality so much, in fact, that I’m going to spend an entire column talking about its exact opposite.
Because there is virtue in consistency, too. There’s value in doing one thing very well for an entire career, especially if you’re the best there is at doing that one thing. For instance, if that one thing you do very well is write sad, perfect songs, and you can do that consistently for more than 30 years, trying on different musical affectations but remaining true to a signature style, then you might be Aimee Mann. But you probably aren’t, because there’s only one Aimee Mann, and she’s amazing.
Over eight prior solo albums (and one swell collaboration with Ted Leo), Mann has written some of the most heart-wrenching tunes I know. She’s wrapped those tunes in orchestration, snarling rock, delicate acoustics and, on 2012’s Charmer, kitschy synths, as if to distract us from the fact that she’s penned the same kind of odes to loneliness and pain her entire life. I don’t even mean that as a criticism – as I said above, she’s pretty much the best there is at writing songs like these, and I will gladly take another 20 albums’ worth of them.
What I admire most about Mental Illness, Mann’s ninth album, is that it signals an embrace of this identity. Where her last few records tried to obscure their sad-sack waltzes with punchy production touches, this one lets them be what they are. Mental Illness is the slowest, saddest, most nakedly emotional album Mann has made in a long time, and she’s risen to the occasion with a set of songs that can proudly stand among her best. Considering this is Aimee Mann we’re talking about, that’s very high praise.
The album is almost too wispy a thing to shoulder such praise. It’s almost entirely acoustic, built on delicate finger-picking and glorious harmonies and occasional shuddering strings. Opener “Goose Snow Cone” sets the tone, if not the bar – it’s a simple thing, gliding by without drawing blood, but it raises the curtain perfectly. The songs get so much better from there, rising up with swaying waltz “Stuck in the Past” and never coming back down. (That bridge is wonderful, its cello line sublime.) “You Never Loved Me” feels the same, but heads off in different directions. How’s this for a sad line: “3,000 miles to sit in a room with a vanishing groom, ‘til it undoes me.” Ugh. Right there.
Mann invited the great Jonathan Coulton to co-write some of the songs on Mental Illness (she’ll return the favor by releasing Coulton’s new rock opera Solid State later this month on her SuperEgo label), and perhaps coincidentally, those are the ones I ended up loving the most. “Rollercoasters” is almost too beautiful to exist, its chorus a delicate fade. I have never heard a more lovely or crushing “please, baby, please” in all my years. “Patient Zero” is one of the few things here that makes use of drummer Jay Bellerose. Here’s another Mann special: “Life is good, you look around and think ‘I’m in the right neighborhood,’ but honey, you just moved in, life is grand, and wouldn’t you like to have it go as planned…”
I can understand people complaining that Mental Illness (and take a second to deal with that title) gets a little same-y, particularly in its back half. But it’s same-y the way Bach concertos are. These are all Aimee Mann songs, all rendered in similar ways, but each one makes a case for itself. The strings and harmonies on “Philly Sinks,” for example, elevate this simple waltz to gorgeous levels, and the clever orchestration on “Simple Fix” is delightfully distinctive. Closer “Poor Judge” is a piano-driven dive into despair: “You might have had some other reason to lead me to the guillotine, but your heart is a poor judge and it harbors an old grudge…”
To say I am in love with this album would be to understate things by an impressive amount. Aimee Mann is one of the best songwriters we have, especially when she feels free to simply be who she is. Mental Illness is the sound of her granting herself that freedom, and the results are stunning. She’s a treasure, and this album is one of her very best, a slow and gentle collapse into the cold and dark, lulling you all the while.
Put it another way: Mental Illness. You’d be mad not to love it.
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Speaking of just doing what they do, here’s the Jesus and Mary Chain.
The big difference here is that it’s been nearly 20 years since the Reid brothers have written and recorded together. Jim and William Reid burst out of the gate in 1985 with a shoegaze-rock classic called Psychocandy. Its juxtaposition of ‘50s rock with snarling, overpowering feedback was a revelation, and it worked so well that they never really did it again. On subsequent records they ditched the shoegaze and turned in simple, repetitive melodic rock. Even their quieter record, Stoned and Dethroned, sounds the same but without amplifiers.
The Jesus and Mary Chain broke up in 1999, and each Reid brother took on other projects. But ten years ago they reunited, and now they’ve just released Damage and Joy, their first record in 19 years. And you know what? It sounds exactly like they did two decades ago. I mean there is literally no change – the songs still siphon their biggest influence from ‘50s pop, the band still plays those songs on overdriven electric guitars, the Reids haven’t changed a lick vocally. They’re exactly the same band.
Whether you like that or not depends on your opinion of everything after Psychocandy. I reservedly like it, but I can’t name a single highlight – the songs are all kind of the same, and are all produced the same way. Which sounds like exactly what I said about Aimee Mann’s record above, but in this case, the songs aren’t as well-crafted and they don’t distinguish themselves. Sky Ferreira and Isobel Campbell put in guest vocal spots, but you wouldn’t be able to tell – they disappear into the record, pummeled by the Jesus and Mary Chain-ness of it all.
And I guess that’s the lesson from consistency. If you really like the Jesus and Mary Chain, enough to be able to tell these 14 songs apart from not only each other but almost everything the Reid brothers have written since their debut, then Damage and Joy will hold untold delights for you. You’ll get exactly what you want from it. I’ve never been their biggest fan. I’ve trudged alongside them, buying their work and feeling unmoved by it, and I get the same emotion from this new one.
As with everything, it comes down to taste: I love what Mann does, and want more of it, but I could have lived without one more Jesus and Mary Chain album that is a carbon copy of the other Jesus and Mary Chain albums. But if this is for you, I hope you love it. Get as much joy from it as you can.
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OK, it’s time for the First Quarter Report. I know, I’m a week late, and while that is partially because last week’s column ran long, it’s also partially because I knew what would, after this week, sit atop the list. Every three months I post a look at my top 10 list in progress – basically, what the list would look like if I were forced to publish it right now. And as there are barely ten great records this year so far, I feel pretty confident in this list, with the caveat that I haven’t heard Laura Marling’s new one yet, as well as a few others I know I have to get to.
But for right now, here’s the list:
10. KXM, Scatterbrain.
9. Son Volt, Notes of Blue.
8. Grandaddy, Last Place.
7. Pain of Salvation, In the Passing Light of Day.
6. Ryan Adams, Prisoner.
5. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway.
4. Peter Silberman, Impermanence.
3. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir.
2. Elbow, Little Fictions.
- Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.
I am 100 percent certain that this will change, and in fact it won’t take long. I hear Kendrick Lamar has a new thing coming next week…
Speaking of next week, I’ll have more reviews on tap. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.