Aimee Mann pairs her exquisitely crafted lyrics with unforgettable melodies, but her tunes often aren’t what you’d call light romps. The singer-songwriter started her musical career in the 80s as front woman of post-new-wave dance-pop band ’Til Tuesday, then went solo in the early 90s. On her tenth solo album, Queens of the Summer Hotel (released on SuperEgo, the label she founded in 1999 with her manager and former ’Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausman), Mann probes the depths of human experience, addressing some grim subject matter—including suicide, self-immolation, and incest. The record comes four years after Mann’s previous album of new material, Mental Illness, which could serve as a companion piece to QotSH thanks to its similar topics and similarly folky instrumentation. Mann composed the new album with collaborator Paul Bryan as the score for a theatrical adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted (which also inspired the movie of the same title). Each song touches on a chapter or character in the book, which details the nearly two years Kaysen spent in a Massachusetts psychiatric institution starting in 1967.
Mann has openly spoken about her own struggles with anxiety and depression, and she can tackle tough or taboo subjects without cloying sentimentality. QotSH forgoes the electric guitars on some of Mann’s earlier albums in favor of a stripped-down approach that showcases her distinctive alto. The first track, “You Fall,” layers insistent piano, flute, and strings to convey the queasy sensation that can come from trying to hold it together while contemplating the feeling that you won’t succeed. The rapid pacing of “Give Me Fifteen” derides the hurried, offhand way some doctors diagnose a patient experiencing a mental-health crisis. The sugary singsong melody of “Home by Now” contrasts with Mann’s lyrics, which describe a young woman’s twisted relationship with her father: “My daddy loves me / He’s my liebchen [sweetheart] / I’m his eine kleine frau [one little wife] / So draw the curtains.” The piano waltz “Suicide Is Murder” coolly examines methods of killing oneself—drowning, bullets, pills—and the motive, means, and opportunity needed to go through with it. Some songs clock in at less than two minutes, making it easy to imagine them bridging the empty spaces between scenes in the play, but despite that brevity, QotSH isn’t a quick (or easy) listen. This one will stay with you for a while.
Aimee Mann’s Queens of the Summer Hotel is available through her website.