Aimee Mann's had a hell of a run lately.
The Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter's "Magnolia" soundtrack was nominated for Grammy and Oscar awards. Her self-released Bachelor No. 2 broke a 10-year cycle of label frustrations and established her as the poster girl for independent artists. And her Acoustic Vaudeville tour with husband Michael Penn and a rotating cast of comedians providing color between songs was lauded by critics and fans alike.
So why is Mann's new album, Lost in Space, strewn with downtrodden, drug-addled, commitment-phobic Los Angelinos?
"The people around me are f---ed up," the former 'Til Tuesday singer said by phone on a recent rare overcast L.A. morning. "There's no lack of f---ed up people to write about."
Like Ned in John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," the cast of characters in Mann's 10-song cycle move from moment to moment without getting anything but older.
"Here I am again at the same old stoplight," she sings over acoustic guitar and swelling cellos on "It's Not." "I keep waiting for a change, but I don't know what. So red turns into green turning into yellow, but I'm just frozen here in the same old spot. And all I have to do is press the pedal, but I'm not."
These "3 o'clock in the morning crisis" moments, as Mann refers to them, aren't so anomalous and hit awfully close to home.
"They're all people I know in one way or another," she said. "I know ex-drug addicts. I know people who have struggles with their own identity. They're trying to figure out who they are. Or they're totally confused or completely fed up and unable to ever connect with anyone in any real way. I think these are kind of common things."
This thematic cohesion of Lost in Space manifests itself sonically as well. Moody keyboards, mysterious blips, beeps and loopy guitar effects lend the otherwise acoustic record an otherworldly sound.
"Some of it was just happenstance, but then it started to really lock in with the feeling of the record so well that we decided to keep it going," Mann explained. "Some of it comes from guitar effects. [Producer/guitarist Michael Lockwood] has these old and bizarre guitar effects that have their own noises. Sometimes it sounds like birds, sometimes space noise, and I really liked the way it fit in with everything."
Lost in Space is due Tuesday and will be followed by a tour in October, Mann said. Meanwhile, she'll continue to pore over her collection of psychology books and puzzle out the riddles of human behavior.
"To me, it's a noble enterprise to try and understand the least understandable aspects of people. I don't think I'm that different from anybody. I don't even think that the people I know are all that screwed up."
But people do have problems, Mann said, "and I want to know why."