Consider the myth of the tortured artist. Aimee Mann has, painstakingly. In a way she's the perfect person for the job, because Mann seems to be the quintessence of the model: a dark soul whose beautiful songs spring from a bottomless well of gloom.
But - as any Aimee Mann song would quietly, scathingly point out - nothing is as it seems. And it's the tiny twists of perspective, the ghostly shifts in angle of approach, that change everything. That and repeated viewings of Crumb.
"That film [a documentary about underground comic book artist Robert Crumb and his extraordinarily dysfunctional family] completely linked it up for me," says Mann, on the phone from her rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. "The idea that art is compensation for something that's lacking, or for a kind of trauma."
At 41 - and with a masterful new album, Lost in Space - Mann has gratefully stumbled onto a theory that draws a single, heavy line through a fragmented life.
"It's like losing your sight and your hearing becomes keener. It's an adaptation. For me, I've often felt that if I was able to be articulate and be expressive in a normal way, maybe I wouldn't write songs."
While we wish Mann nothing but happiness, the world would be a poorer place by far without her music. Lost in Space, Mann's fourth solo disc on her SuperEgo label, is an exquisitely detailed journey through the blind alleys and suffocating folds of obsession. Produced by her touring guitarist, Michael Lockwood, it's the most ambient, textured music Mann has made. Finely cut melodies are the shimmering setting for a pageant of twisted relationships and deadly compulsions.
Mann, whose lyrics have always been brutally frank, probes with the blank-faced precision of a surgeon. "Better take the keys/ and drive forever/Staying won't put these futures back together/All the perfect drugs and superheroes/ wouldn't be enough to bring me up to zero," she sings on "Humpty Dumpty," the album's opening track and first single.
It's signature Mann: an elegant pop song that cloaks its spikes in irresistible chord changes and hooks.
Taken at face value, the collection sounds like a song cycle about drugs and addiction. "Let me be your heroin," Mann pleads in low, flat desperation on "High on Sunday 51," and the ambiguous homonym couldn't be clearer: Mann is a master of disguise. Literal and figurative meanings bleed into one powerful altered state, which is just as well. That's exactly the point.
"Drugs are my shorthand," explains Mann, who's as incisive in conversation as she is in her songs, and just as intense. "Everybody understands drug addiction, certainly better than they understand obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia or gambling. My theory is that in all of them, it's the compulsive behavior itself that's mood-altering.
"It's the same with relationships. The common thread is the need to focus and obsess. I've had relationships with the Awful Guy, where all you do is talk about how awful he is. The one thing you're not doing is thinking about your own problems."
Mann has had her share. She's grappled "forever," she says, with debilitating depression as well as with eating disorders, which came to a head when she moved to Boston and formed the band 'Til Tuesday in the early '80s. A difficult childhood left her with gaping holes in her soul; Mann says those are being filled, with the help of good therapy and serious songwriting.
The girl who struggled to communicate is now gifted with extraordinary clarity of words and purpose. Mann's outspoken battle to extricate herself from the clutches of major record labels - whose handling of her music throughout the '90s ran from ineffectual to evil, depending on whom you ask - made her something of a poster girl for independent musicians.
Not one of her three previous solo albums was released on the label for which it was recorded. Mann and her manager, Michael Hausman, formed SuperEgo in 1999 to release Bachelor No. 2 - the same year she garnered Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her work on the Magnolia soundtrack. The next year she received three Grammy nominations, and the momentum of Magnolia fueled sales of Bachelor, which sold a remarkable (by self-release standards) 200,000 copies.
The irony of being honored with the highest acknowledgement from the industry that never had a clue what to do with her is, ultimately, more sweet than bitter.
"I am so delighted to be independent, doing what I want to do," she says. "They still own the stuff I did, but as long as they don't do anything they shouldn't with my music, I don't think about it. However well or poorly this new one sells, I could never go back to the other way."
Getting the music on the radio, however, remains the most daunting challenge for an independent artist. But the notoriety Mann gained with the self-styled success of the last album may have set the stage for "Humpty Dumpty."
Mike Denneen, co-founder of Boston's Q Division Records and Mann's longtime friend and collaborator, did initial production work on three of the tracks on Lost in Space. From an artistic standpoint, he says, the album marks yet another milestone.
"The fruit of being on her own, fleshing out her own ideas, is this record," Denneen says. "The last album was a step toward this, and Lost in Space is far enough removed in style and sound that you can really see the leaps she's making."
It's as if the last four decades have been leading to this supremely creative moment.