Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann has long had a reputation for writing poignant, sad songs about relationships and life’s universal struggles, but it’s her – often overlooked – subtle sense of humor that adds a layer of humanity to her work that is hard to articulate in words. Throughout the songwriter’s sold-out show at Park West in Chicago on April 29, she shared insight into the origins of her music with charm, wit and sensitivity before diving into each delicate tune.

“I’m gonna see if I can match some depressing new ones with some depressing old ones,” said Mann at the top of her set before playing “4th of July” off her 1993 debut, “Whatever.” “Stuck in the Past” was the first track to appear from her latest album, “Mental Illness,” and it was clear that fans were enthusiastic to hear her new material in a live setting. Mann’s lush vocals blanketed each song in comforting tranquility as her three-piece band – Paul Bryan (bass), Jamie Edwards (keys) and Jay Bellerose (drums) – embellished each composition through intricate instrumentation and pitch perfect vocal harmonies.

Jonathan CoultonThe show’s opener, Jonathan Coulton, whose unique tunes took the audience on a melodic journey through space, time, the internet and consumerism during his set, joined Mann for several “Mental Illness” tracks, several of which he co-wrote. Mann explained that “Goose Snow Cone” originated on a lonely night in Ireland when rain and wind – much like the Chicago weather that evening – added to her homesick feelings when she was unexpectedly inspired by a photo of a friend’s cat, named Goose. She playfully added that she intended on changing the lyrics – as to not have to explain the meaning behind them at each show – but thankfully that never happened. There is no better song about the strong bond between pet owners and their four-legged friends.

In between lovely harmonies, Mann and Coulton exchanged “japes and jests” that evoked ripples of laughter across the crowd. She feigned aggravation that the opening lyric of “Good for Me” – which Coulton penned – is regularly described as being “so classically” her. The soft and somber song featured Mann on the piano – an instrument she stated that she doesn’t play – which only added to the vulnerability of the moment.

Aimee Mann

“Save Me,” “The Moth” and “Rollercoasters” were further highlights of the performance. Mann described the “Charmer” track,“Labrador” as being about “expecting your partner to act like your pet,” adding that when put that way, it “doesn’t sound so bad.” In the hands of a consummate songwriter and lyricist like Mann, sad songs become more than a cathartic release. Rather than ending in tears, they conclude with the ability to look back and laugh at the more maddening aspects of existence.

On a cold and rainy night in Chicago, Mann’s sublime songs warmed fans’ souls and allowed everyone to connect with the heart of what it takes to get through this thing called “life.”

“Mental Illness” is available everywhere music is sold, and Mann has plans to continue to tour across North America through late June. Head over to to stay up to date with the songwriter’s latest projects.

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...