Sometimes the best inspiration can come from outside yourself. Whether by assignment or impulse, being forced to work within the confines of a format dictated by another can pay dividends for artists looking to shake things up. (Just ask David Lynch and the results of translating his singular vision into hourlong TV episodes.)
Which is what makes Queens Of The Summer Hotel, Aimee Mann’s new album, such an unusual (and unusually rewarding) project. Commissioned to write the music for a stage adaptation of Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted—the 1993 memoir of Kaysen’s time in a psychiatric facility in the late 1960s—Mann takes to the assignment as though the material were borne of her own imagination. Outside of the unusual song lengths and other considerations of its original theatrical intent, this feels like a classic Mann album, through and through.
To a degree, that shouldn’t be surprising. The musician has recently opened up about her own struggles with mental illness—her last album title, 2017’s Mental Illness, was a playful nod to that jaundiced view of her work—and music about grappling with uncontrollable emotions and pain has always been an integral part of Mann’s arsenal. So taking on the voice and viewpoint of preexisting characters dealing with similar issues slides into her discography with ease.
What is surprising is just how much she’s managed to create a song cycle that stands wholly apart from its stage-play origins, an album as lived-in and distinctive as any she’s made. It doesn’t have the instant-classic pop of some of her earlier material, but as a more somber, measured collection of music (none of the jangly pop-rock of Charmer to be found here), it’s a winner. Even on 30-second throwaway transitional snippets like “6 Checks,” her signature songcraft is recognizable.
Despite the heavy subject matter—and arrangements largely hewing to piano, strings, and acoustic guitar, with the occasional horns and drums—Mann often counterposes lighter melodies and rhythms with the downbeat material. It’s a trick she’s often employed (think “Nothing Is Good Enough” off of Bachelor No. 2), and it works again here, as the bleak lyricism of “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath” employs a gently loping waltz. Even more effective is “Give Me Fifteen,” a song that details the danger inherent in a misogynistic ’60s medical process, with its doctor breezily announcing, “In the time it takes to walk around the block / I can have you scheduled for electroshock.” The musical accompaniment to this darkness? A bouncy rhythm and hooky melodies, not unlike her cover of “One” from the Magnolia soundtrack.
In some ways, the imposition of shorter song lengths necessitated by the musical format juices her songs, lending a Guided By Voices-like sense of get-in-and-get-out brevity, leaving the listener wanting more. “Home By Now” and “Little Chameleon,” with their simple piano intros and drawn-out strings, both come in well under the two-minute mark, but are all the more impactful for it. And “You Could Have Been A Roosevelt,” a Beatles-esque composition, barely crosses that time threshold, yet is stunning—not just one of the best tracks on the record, but able to hold its own against her finest work.
The overall vibe created by the record, though, is mellow, with swaying rhythms and quiet compositions that take advantage of her talent for softer, low-register delivery. Opener “You Fall” sets the tone well, with her backing vocals and brushed drums establishing a vibe apropos for a smoky lounge, maybe even from the era in question. And the one-two punch of mid-album tracks “You Don’t Have The Room” and “Suicide Is Murder” make for a musical and thematic core to the record, the former a mournful rejoinder blended with elegantly swooning strings and the latter an aching ballad of regret, but both containing her not-quite-staccato piano playing opening up into something grander.
The most stage-indebted of the numbers do come with a slight asterisk, however. “At The Frick Museum,” with its sing-song melody and repetition, feels like it’s meant to be heard in an off-Broadway setting, and “12 In Mexico,” with its 3/4 stroll and declamatory statements about “I’m the crazy one they can point to,” doesn’t quite pop on its own. Between those and the “Check” reprise, some instrumentation comes across a little too much like filler.
But even with a few forgettable numbers, Queens Of The Summer Hotel makes an impact. No knowledge of its origin story in a theatrical production is needed to make these narratives of longing and tragedy sing, just as no electric guitar is required to showcase Mann’s ace knack for songwriting. It may fall on the more mellow and restrained side of her catalogue, but this is a record to be savored—mining beauty (and yes, some humor) from pain is an Aimee Mann specialty, and this record serves as further testament to that fact. It’s been nearly four decades since she founded ’Til Tuesday, but the musician has never sounded more confident.