Whether she’s playing a toeless nihilist in The Big Lebowski or delivering sarcasm-laced lyrics throughout her nine-album solo catalog, Aimee Mann brings dry humor to everything she does. It came out in 1999, but I’m still unsure if the song “Save Me” is an honest plea for a savior or a sardonic rip at hyper-masculine hero complexes. By now it’s fair to call Mann an alt-rock legend—her career began with the 1980s new wave band ’Til Tuesday, and it continues to expand with March’s Mental Illness. It’s her first solo album since 2012’s Charmer, and trades buzzy guitar-pop for down-tempo folk.
On Mental Illness, Mann leans into the melancholy tendencies of her music, and as a result, is much more straightforward with her pain. Against acoustic guitar and the sweeping melodrama of orchestral strings, its 11 tracks illustrate how the simplest of plans can feel grandiose when you’re depressed. This begins with opening track “Goose Snow Cone,” which pairs the soft jingle of bells and acoustic guitar as she tells herself, “Gotta keep it together when your friends come by.” Mann’s barely-there Virginia accent gives some muted twang to her lyrics, which often draw from the deep well of salt-of-the-earth aphorisms and musical clichés that she calls the “tumbleweed lexicon” (“You Never Loved Me”).
The album’s standout, “Simple Fix,” tracks the cyclical nature of entering and exiting periods of darkness with nervous piano spasms, shadowy harmonies, and the fatalistic whine of strings. This new record is merely the latest in Mann’s long line of achievements, but it’s a remarkable example of her abilities as a musician—and in this particular instance, her reclaiming and mastering of the “sad folk” stereotype with an expansive landscape of what Mental Illness looks like for her.