The front door slams shut behind you, the sound echoing throughout the empty apartment. It's quiet except for the sound of rain outside the window. Your keys clink as they land on the table; you put a fresh pot of coffee on. An unread newspaper -- its news now a day old -- sits nearby. You flop on the couch exhausted, with a cup of coffee to read the paper, its predictability somehow comfortable.
The above setting doesn't so much describe the lyrics or music of Lost in Space, Aimee Mann's fourth studio album, as much as it describes how it feels. Warm, familiar, predictable, comfortable. There are no surprises here, just what we've come to expect.
While Aimee Mann dished out excellent two power-poppy discs of alt-rock early in her career, the public failed to pay attention. Of course that led to the requisite movie-of-the-week style bitter record company battles (They wouldn't release her album! They profited off her comeback!) followed by a Cinderella-like return with the one-two punch of the Magnolia soundtrack and her excellent third album Bachelor No. 2. What Bachelor did was introduce us to Aimee Mann mach two (or three, if we include her 'Til Tuesday days, which we probably should). She was still bitterly reflective, but instead of trying to rock out, she went for pop classicism, a la Carole King and Carly Simon. Finally, people paid attention.
What we see with Lost in Space is an artist letting go of many of her demons. While this is really just an expansion of the sound laid out on Bachelor, that album showed signs of the anger and bitterness of the time when it was produced, which we see Mann (more or less) moving beyond on this record. Sonically, it's very similar to Bachelor No. 2 as piano, strings, and softer guitar work (heavier on acoustic, very low on fuzz) create an almost dreamy soundscape for Mann's songs. Those songs, however, are different than what we've seen before. My earlier analogy points out to the introverted comfort that's inherent in this record: it's warm, familiar and friendly, yes, but none of Mann's records -- not even Bachelor No. 2 which was often at least lyrically jarring -- have sounded like this. For anyone who realizes that part of Mann's appeal is her fire -- she isn't, after all, a standard mellowed-out female singer/songwriter -- this may come as a surprise.
Despite its inherently adult contemporary inclinations, Lost in Space does feature some of the great songwriting we've come to expect from Mann, and her songs are, in all reality, still pretty wounded and fractured. Heck, just look at the title of the album's opener "Humpty Dumpty", an infectious slice of pop that uses the tale of Humpty Dumpty as a simile for the speaker's (or Mann's) own collapse. The song's outro even weds a few lines from the tale itself to the music from the choruses. The old-story-made-new theme is continued on "Pavlov's Bell", one of the other album highlights. It's the album's one true rock song, wedding a great guitar solo and a power-poppy chorus with the story of a communication breakdown in a relationship.
For all its virtues, however, Lost in Space's flaw is its benign nature. While Mann has created a set of well-assembled mellow pop music, never before has she created an album so closely resembling background music. Even on repeat listens, many longtime Mann fans (like myself) find that most of the songs (save the two mentioned above, "This is How It Goes", and a few others) don't distinguish themselves like the material on her older albums. Of course, that doesn't mean Lost in Space is a failure -- it's not at all. To reference the first paragraph of this review again, however, this is a mood album. It's a mellow chillout record for someone who doesn't listen to techno, a pop record for someone who loved the singer/songwriter pop of the early '70s. There's nothing wrong with any of this, and if I find Lost in Space to pale slightly compared to Mann's previous efforts, it's because of my own biases towards her more rock-based material. But, again, this is the newer, post-Magnolia Mann, and for those boatloads of well-deserved newer fans, Lost in Space will surely do the trick.