Over the course of her nearly 40 year career, Aimee Mann has pretty much done it all. In the 80’s she led the new wave band ‘Til Tuesday, composing their biggest hit, “Voices Carry,” and even sang a rare duet with Rush’s Geddy Lee. When she went solo, Mann signed to an indie label start up, which eventually sold to major label Geffen Records, but once she was dropped she started her own indie label, and has released ten solo albums, and also recorded most of the songs for the soundtrack to the Paul Anderson film, “Magnolia,” which did also include a song by Harry Nilsson and two from Supertramp. In 2014, she released a power pop collaboration with Ted Leo under the band name, The Both. A literate singer/songwriter, often praised for her devotion to the traditional elements of pop songwriting, Mann won the “Best Folk Album” Grammy for her 2017 album Mental Illness, and soon after was asked to write songs for a potential Broadway musical based on the 1993 memoir of Susanna Kayson about her time in a psychiatric hospital, “Girl, Interrupted.”
Turns out that most shows that make it to Broadway can spend a decade or longer in preproduction, with plenty of re-writes and modifications, when the project was stalled by the pandemic Mann realized that she had an albums worth of tunes and headed into the studio producer and orchestrator Paul Bryan to record the music under the title, Queens of the Summer Hotel. Mann, who has listed the likes of Steven Sondheim and Jimmy Webb as major influences, proves to be a smart choice to take the elements of Kayson’s memoir into song. Admittedly, we hear very little of Mann’s usual folk/rock acoustic guitar as much of the record leans toward piano with string arrangements that are omnipresent. “Burn It Out” is one where the guitar manages to hold its own, but little here matches the more potent power pop inclinations from her earlier solo work and that pretty fabulous album with The Both.
While in large measure, you’d expect a work inspired by the life and writings of another person might feel emotionally removed, merely an expression of song craftsmanship and lyrical skill, of which Mann exhibits plenty. But whether it’s her own emotional struggles, as chronicled on “Mental Illness,” or Mann’s emotional capacity to put herself into her songs, much here rings true as first-person narrative because, as the closing song suggests, “I See You.” And she manages to name check poets and writers who dealt with their own mental health challenges in “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath,” while “At The Frick Museum,” Mann uses the name of the painter Vermeer in the most lovely and melodic way. But any relationship can be suspect, even the beloved patriarch who asserts that “if you lived here, you’d be ‘Home By Now,” but perhaps not truly safe from abuse.
“Girl, Interrupted” carries the kind of emotional heft of a story worth telling, but no one’s going to mistake the film of that name for the classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But Broadway audiences are notoriously biased toward a positive up-lifting tale, even if “Beautiful,” based on the songs and life of Carole King, and “Hamilton,” which is dominated by hip-hop, suggest that modern pop music is welcome on the stage. A recent production around the music of Bob Dylan’s songs, “The Girl From the North Country,” has some triumphant musical moments, but given the story tied the Depression-era struggles in a boarding house, has had trouble selling tickets even with Mare Winningham in the cast. All of which is to suggest, that Mann is wise to go ahead and share this fine collection of songs with her fans. Elvis Costello has reportedly written 18 songs for a musical intended for Broadway, “A Face in the Crowd,” based on the 1957 movie of the same name, and he’s taken to playing versions of several of those songs with his band The Imposters at his concerts, during the long delay to bring the show to the New York stage.
Still, the release of “Suicide Is Murder” as a single from “Queens,” may be asking too much of a pop radio audience, even if Mann’s fans are already open to songs that dig deep into the struggles to maintain mental health and emotional well-being. Musically, Mann’s strong song craft and the musically potent settings, especially this one that addresses an important challenge many face in modern life, arrives in a timely way as folk are returning to public life after the forced isolation of the last couple years. As public service announcements go, it’s way more enjoyable than those commercials for online therapy.
Key Tracks: “Give Me Fifteen” / “Burn It Out” / “I See You”
Artists With Similar Fire: Jenny Lewis / Elvis Costello / Tanya Donelly
Aimee Mann Review History: Mental Illness (2017)