Queens Of The Summer Hotel, Aimee Mann‘s 10th studio album, was written for a stage adaptation of Girl, Interrupted, the memoir by American author Susanna Kaysen about her time at the McLean psychiatric hospital in the late 1960s. Although the pandemic resulted in the show itself being temporarily shelved (details of when or if it will go ahead are still to be confirmed) Mann made the decision to press ahead with the release of the music on its own, and the quality of the 15 songs on the album proves it was definitely the right move.
Her songs have previously enjoyed success in similar soundtracking environments, most notably on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. Given Mann’s previous personal experience of mental health issues (and artistic exploration of it on albums like 2017’s Mental Illness) her involvement on this project feels particularly well-considered.
The subject matter might suggest a difficult listen is to follow but that’s not necessarily always the case. True, traces of wistfulness, difficulty and melancholy run through the songs and there are some jarring and stark lines, which take on greater significance with knowledge of the book (which was also the basis for a 1999 James Mangold film adaptation of the same name). Kaysen’s memoir details her experiences in the hospital as well as other patients and medical staff and Mann recounts these stories in character with conviction.
On Robert Lowell & Sylvia Plath (both former patients at the McLean hospital) Mann sings of the experience of being inside the hospital as a “ghoulish pantomime” before questioning “what’s to become of me, what am I doing here?”. On Give Me Fifteen the references are even more unconcealed, as she sings in the voice of a doctor at the hospital of how “in the time it takes to walk around the block I can have you scheduled for electro-shock”.
Lyrically it may carry a certain heaviness but the songs are lifted by Mann’s undimmed mastery of melody and the musical arrangements which are varyingly led by either piano, woodwind or strings. The songs also showcase her clear-sighted command of language and mellifluous voice, which traverses gentle arcs and turns as each track unfolds.
At The Frick Museum is a good example of the narrative detail that she embellishes her songs with, on this occasion referencing Girl Interrupted At Her Music, the painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer that the book’s title is taken from. It also contains an example of how she can still subtly shift the dynamic within songs when she cuts loose and allows her voice to soar upwards.
Suicide Is Murder sees her at her most direct, confronting uncomfortable subjects that many others would prefer to avoid. The central line of “suicide is murder, you’ve got to have motive, means, and opportunity, suicide is murder, pre-meditated, rehearsed tragedy” has an emotional gravitas unlikely to be seen in many other songs this year. Later, You Could Have Been A Roosevelt brings some light relief of sorts, as she sings of how one character was “down to be a Kennedy when you could have been a Roosevelt”.
Moments like these also confirm how versatile an artist Mann has developed into when compared to energised power-pop of her early albums. Queens Of The Summer Hotel sees her consolidate her position as an adept songwriter capable of addressing difficult subjects with empathy and beauty.