It’s hard to write about something or someone you really love, and I really love Elliott Smith (about whom I wrote a book, Torment Saint) and Aimee Mann. But then, these are the subjects you want most to write about too, in order to express your love and to understand it. So here goes.
Mann just released a new record, “Mental Illness.” I’m not sure it’s her best, but talking about “the best” Aimee Mann is senseless. Actually, it’s just like talking about “the best” Elliott Smith. When something is never not good, there is no best. There’s only more and different. Degrees of excellent, maybe.
I’ve noticed Smith’s name coming up in Mann’s press—her interviews, reviews, etc. It’s a comparison that makes sense. Both did soundtracks, Mann for the glorious Magnolia, Smith (less comprehensively) for Good Will Hunting. At the time of his death, Smith was also recording songs for the film Thumbsucker, based on a book by my friend Walter Kirn. Both lost Oscars they should have won in a just world. Both wrote (or write) songs that get called “depressing,” for reasons neither of them accept or understand. Both tackle subjects like addiction, failed relationships, disappointment, poor choices, dashed expectations, lost souls, and lonely isolation. For long periods of time, not always but frequently, Smith was depressed, forlorn, suicidal, and in his final years, psychotic, a side effect of crack use that ramps up dopamine. Mann comes across as supremely adult–level-headed and self-composed. Yet in interviews she’s spoken of being “pretty disturbed as a kid.” She “couldn’t interact with people.” Her mother left when she was three—Aimee never knew her. Her father remarried. The home was characterized by a “lot of chaos.” Mann says, “I was really dissociated. I wasn’t present. I think I was kind of PTSD honestly. I was. . . very disconnected from people.” The interviewer asks her whom she was closest to in her family. “Nobody,” Mann replies.
But these are all surface commonalities. What about the deeper stuff, the art itself? In my book Torment Saint, I said the only person I could think of alive today whose work compared with Smith’s was Mann. I made a mix CD with alternating songs by the two, to test my theory in a sense, on the front side of which I wrote in permanent black marker “Elliott Mann” (I thought it was fractionally catchier than “Aimee Smith”). It is damn good. I could have picked the songs at random. (That says a lot).
I’ve thought long and hard about what Smith and Mann have in common artistically—it’s a bit like comparing vodka and gin—and here’s what I’ve narrowed it down to: emotional wisdom born of pain. I’m talking about lyrics. How they make suffering more understandable, more eye-opening, more beautiful. I don’t find that depressing in the least. I find it exciting, sensual, gently melancholic, inspiring. Poetry makes you see things you’ve never seen before, or feel more clearly, more originally. That’s what Mann and Smith do too, with their words. They sharpen your perceptions. They show you stuff you thought you knew but didn’t. They lead you to new ways of experiencing your own inner life.
Musically, they seem different to me. Smith is baroque, hard, acidic, with passing chords and chord progressions you don’t see coming. Mann is more supple, maybe less surprising, though not in a bad way. She wasn’t, she says, a born songwriter. In fact, she said she can’t believe what she’s become. Smith was never anything but. He started writing songs in 6th grade. I’ve heard them all; they are good. By the time he finished high school he’d produced about six album length cassettes, with his band Stranger Than Fiction, then another called Murder of Crows. There have been some cover albums lately of Elliott Smith songs. His work in other people’s mouths never sounds quite right to me, though I understand the instinct to try it out. I wish Mann would make such a record. I’m certain she never would. She probably knows better. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s her.
For good and bad reasons, we always want to lump great sad artists together, find their common vibe, their unstated aesthetic. Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath. Kafka and Dostoevsky. The list is long. Sometimes we end up with illusory correlations, sometimes not. The proof is in the pudding. What Smith and Mann both seem to know is that we’re all fighting similar demons. The difference is only degree. They also “go dark.” Like Virgils, they take us by the hand and guide a Hell tour that sounds and looks Heavenly. “Depressing” isn’t the word for their songs. The word is rapturous.