The concluding song on Aimee Mann’s gorgeous new album, “Mental Illness,” may be its peak moment — and a peak moment in Mann’s songwriting career.
“Poor Judge” is a sad song, of course; Mann is pop music’s Dalai Lama of Dolor, the Consoling Angel of Anguish, the Patron Saint of Sorrow. With her coolly restrained voice, shamelessly lulling melodies, and lyrics tight with metaphor, she deftly converts life’s unkindest cuts — betrayals, failures, drug habits, habits of love — into objects of beauty. Crystalline beauty, too: Her production values always match her clear, delicate words.
Turning on sorrowful piano and aching strings, “Poor Judge” breaks your heart, and then the pure honesty of it — about the end of love — lifts you. It’s that perfect hybrid of bitter and sweet, tragedy and truth, that Mann has mastered in the years since her first solo record in 1993, after her years with ’Til Tuesday. The entire song, written with John Roderick, is lovely, a meticulous conceit built on fragile images — the flare of a lighter, a burning tissue screen — that turn into iron. But the chorus is outstanding, with its ever-shifting mix of irony, blame, and compassion: “My heart is a poor judge/ It harbors an old grudge.”
With “Mental Illness” and a tour that lands in Boston Sunday for a sold-out show at the Wilbur, Mann is fully owning her reputation for melancholy with a disarming smile. In a way, she’s openly embracing what her fans have long known: that being a really fine writer of sad songs is not a bad thing, that it’s a rare musician who can stir the soul in songs like “Poor Judge,” that stigma is in the eyes of the beholder. With only gentle rhythms underneath song themes ranging from sociopathic lying to ordinary depression, “Mental Illness” is proudly, unapologetically sad and wistful from start to finish.
The sad-siren label used to vex her, Mann, 56, says in a recent phone interview: “Any time somebody stereotypes you, a part of you feels, ‘I’ll show them.’ Even if you’re 10 years old.” Also, she says, while coming up through the major label system before she started Superego Records in 1999, she was repeatedly told that sad equals bad: “I was constantly hearing, ‘This song doesn’t sound like a single, you can’t have a ballad as a single, the radio won’t play it if it’s not up-tempo,’ and I came away with the impression that that word was chained to me.”
With “Mental Illness” — whose title is a reminder that Mann can also be slyly funny — she rejected the idea of obligatorily placing rock-tinged singles into the mix, which she did as recently as her last solo album, the vibrant “Charmer” in 2012. “What did I have to lose?” she says. “It’s not like having a song on the radio is even a thing anymore.”
She was emboldened by the straight-ahead soft rock of 1970s stalwarts such as Dan Fogelberg and Bread, after she and Ted Leo, with whom she made a rock album and toured in 2014 as The Both, began listening to Bread on the road. “Bread is a band I always thought was wildly uncool,” she says, “but their records sound beautiful. It’s one sad song after another, but then the rock song comes in. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants the rock palate cleanser. I’m not listening to Bread for the groovy rock music. I want David Gates’s soft, moving voice.”
Mann’s voice is similarly moving, and it has gained depth over the years, thanks to both her artistic growth and appropriately sensitive studio microphones. She says she aims to be “conversational” in her singing, a quality that is abundantly clear on the new album’s bleakly beautiful “Philly Sinks,” about a dry alcoholic who brings women down with him. “I’m definitely not one of those singers with great pipes,” she says. “My voice is very quiet, it doesn’t have a lot of power and volume.” Her voice is particularly prominent in the “Mental Illness” mix, which was produced to be “the exact opposite” of her earlier, more sonically dense albums, she says. The ornamentation on the new album mostly comes courtesy of dramatic strings, which, on “Poor Judge,” have been modeled after the classic string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster on 1970s Elton John songs such as “Levon.”
There’s absolutely nothing Bread-like about Mann’s taut lyrics on “Mental Illness,” by the way, with their unromanticized realities and language play — the clever line “We act it out so it stays in” from the haunting “Simple Fix,” for example. Mann writes about love as an addiction, with the couples in her songs staying together despite the toxicity of their relationships. It’s a very long way from “Baby I’m-a Want You.” Does she ever crave seeing her song characters break free of their patterns? “I feel like the song itself is the breaking free,” she says. “Because the acknowledging and looking at your own behavior, that’s the beginning of change. That’s why the songs don’t seem that depressing to me.”
Mann says she feels a sense of uplift when she composes even the darkest of pieces. “The writing of a song for me really is a transformative experience,” she says. “It’s not like I’m writing with tears streaming down my face, but sometimes I’ll write a song and be feeling a feeling and want to write about the feeling. And there is a way that the structure — the themes and rhymes and verses and choruses — makes it manageable and understandable. It feels like you’re creating order out of chaos.”
She describes her writing process as a kind of falling set of dominos: “Usually I start with a little piece of music on my guitar,” she says, “with a chord progression that suggests a melody, and then the melody will suggest an emotional state that will suggest a rhyme, and the rhyme will refine the melody. And then you follow that trail.”
The trail that led to the song “Patient Zero,” which is about an actor getting ruined by Hollywood, began when she met actor Andrew Garfield at a party. “I feel like he’s a real artist, and a very sensitive person,” she says, “and Hollywood can be very monolithic and it tends to grind sensitive people underneath its wheel. He made it happen for himself where he’s OK — I hope he’s OK! — but there are other artists who couldn’t survive that. The song is Andrew Garfield in an alternative universe where he comes out to make ‘Spider-Man’ and encounters political infighting and feels like he doesn’t want to be part of it.”
Despite the confessional tone of Mann’s songs, she says she often writes about others, such as Garfield. Does that make her social life precarious? “I’m afraid to start asking around,” she says, laughing. “A lot of people around me are artists or songwriters themselves, so they understand the mutating rush that happens when you start writing, that you may take a nugget of a real situation and it immediately transforms itself.”
“Patient Zero” also reflects Mann’s own “brush with fame,” she says, when she was with ’Til Tuesday, the band she cofounded in Boston in the early ’80s. “Fame is a weird trauma,” she says. “People are staring at you, and on an animal level having a lot of people stare at you is extremely threatening and it raises a lot of anxiety. And it might be a little different for women. It has a stalker feel, but you have to be nice to your stalkers.”
Last year during the presidential campaign, Mann wrote a song about then-candidate Donald Trump called “Can’t You Tell?” for Dave Eggers’s anti-Trump project called “30 Days, 30 Songs.” She says she probably won’t perform it on this tour, for fear of laying too much new material on fans, but the topic leads to her feelings about releasing a new record in the early days of the Trump administration.
“The political situation has created so many different kinds of emergencies,” she says, “that it feels trivial on the one hand. And on the other hand, this topic of mental illness fits, because I do feel there’s a kind of mental illness emanating from the White House. Maybe music is hopeful to people in some way. I hope it is.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.