A treat for any fan of Aimee Mann’s music, although it needs some understanding of the source material to be truly appreciated.
Aimee Mann has never been afraid to tackle the difficult subject of mental health. Whether it’s through the lens of the story of a traumatised Vietnam vet on her concept album ‘The Forgotten Arm’, having the emotionally fragile Claudia in the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson epic movie ‘Magnolia’ become an avatar for her songs, or just full on embracing her reputation as a “sad female singer” by naming her previous 2017 album ‘Mental Illness’, her willingness to confront the often not talked about subject makes it not the least bit surprising that she would be involved in writing songs for a musical version of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir (and subsequent 1999 film) ‘Girl, Interrupted’, a tale of her time spent in a 1960s mental hospital. Because of the pandemic, said musical has been put on hold, so Mann decided to make the songs she had into her next album.
“I know what you think / This happens to other girls / You stand at the sink / You pin up your hair in curls,” Mann sings with her signature sunny sadness on the opener ‘You Fall’, encapsulating Kaysen’s quiet descent into darkness. Some beautiful flute playing leads us into the musically winding ‘Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath’, a song about the two poets and the time they themselves spent in the same institution as Kaysen (“And what’s to become of me? / What am I doing here?”).
‘Give Me Fifteen’ seems light, but its lyrical content is a dark look at misogyny and the part it played in the often inhumane treatment of women, something Mann sums up very succinctly with the line: “You’re feminine—you’re crazy”. ‘At the Frick Museum’ references a portion of ‘Girl, Interrupted’ where Kaysen talks about visiting the titular museum and feeling drawn to a particular painting by Vermeer (“A strange vignette / In paint and frame I knew that, yet I’d heard my name / Like a dream I’d forgotten”), while ‘Home by Now’ is a short surprising gut punch, the tale of Daisy, one of the women Kaysen spent time with in the mental hospital (played memorably on screen by the late Brittany Murphy) and the troubling relationship she seemed to have with her father: “He calls it Daisy’s little love nest / But I have no interest In any other man but him,” sings Mann from Daisy’s point-of-view. “So draw the curtains / And read the sign above you / If you lived here you’d be home by now”.
The routine of hospital rounds is put to music in the short ‘Checks’ and its partner ‘Checks (reprise)’, which are more the kind of interludes you’d expect in a musical to fill scene changes than songs in their own right. ‘You Don’t Have the Room’ fits perfectly in Mann’s wheelhouse of exploring fragility, the product of which is a song that would fit seamlessly into any of her past non-’Girl, Interrupted’ themed work. ‘Suicide is Murder’ is blunt and to the point when it comes to the scenarios Kaysen ran through her head when contemplating ending her own life: “So picture yourself / What sums up all of your ills? / Is it drowning, or bullets, or pills and try to detach / You’re throwing the pills down the hatch / Or falling where no-one can catch”.
On the friendly ‘You Could Have Been a Roosevelt’, our narrator speaks of finding freedom in the fact their mental health problems have ruined the dreams their family had for them: “This could be us / But we’re the graves / At which our fathers knelt / You’re doomed to be a Kennedy / When you could have been a Roosevelt / And we’re glad / We can see in them versions of the / Life that we almost had”. The gently folkish ‘Burn It Out’ sees Mann wonders if it’s possible to obliterate lingering shame from her past, while on the string laden ‘In Mexico’, an addict dreams of an escape to their own kind of paradise.
‘You’re Lost’ captures the uncertain horror of feeling unmoored by a mental pain you can’t control: “A pill on your tongue dissolving / An egg outside its shell / A puzzle that no one’s solving / At the bottom of a well”. On the final track – ‘I See You’ – Mann offers comfort to someone in heartbreaking distress, assuring them of an understanding. “You want to disappear / And just not be,” she states, quick to add: “But I can see”.
As always, Mann’s boldness throughout the album is a breath of fresh air, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. These songs stick to a very specific theme, so those unfamiliar with ‘Girl, Interrupted’ might not find them as impactful as those who are, but Mann’s lyrical depth and rich musicianship might be enough to make those people pick up the book or watch the film, rewarding them with a full understanding of this emotionally charged and utterly moving album.