Finally free of her corporate shackles, Mann may be happier than ever before, but that doesn't mean she's going to write about it. "I don't think it's very interesting," she says by phone from a friend's house in LA. "At least not for me -- I mean, I just don't have that much to say about it. You're definitely exploring a topic in your own mind when you write a song, and I don't really have a whole lot to explore there. What's to explore? 'Happiness -- it's good! Everyone should have some of it!' It's hard to know what else to say."
Sadness, on the other hand, has always been a rich source of creative inspiration for Mann. Now that she's completely in charge of her own career and no longer subject to the demands of industry drones to write peppy, radio-ready singles, she can finally be as gloomy as she pleases. Her fourth and most recent solo album, Lost in Space, is the second CD she's released on her Superego label but the first she was able to make without pesky business-related distractions. Thanks to the Internet and the unexpected success of her contributions to the Magnolia soundtrack, she sold an impressive 200,000 copies of her previous record, Bachelor #2 -- by industry standards, that's nothing to write home about, but for an independent artist, it more than pays the bills. With those financial pressures off her bony shoulders, she could afford to concentrate on the album qua album this time around.
Despite her newfound freedom, Mann's not making any drastic stylistic changes. Although she's definitely evolved as a songwriter since her days in 'Til Tuesday (and God knows her coiffure is much improved), she's not one to reinvent herself in response to passing trends. Mann, a pop classicist if ever there was one, resists the temptation to explore the experimental vanguard. Unlike her sometime collaborator Elvis Costello, who's probably her greatest influence as a songwriter, Mann doesn't give the chattering class new stuff to talk about every couple of years. With each album, her sound recapitulates everything it's always been, only it's somehow more so, a fact that leads some fickle rockcrit types to criticize her for coasting.
Mann admits that she doesn't really hear any major sonic differences in Lost in Space, and, what's more, she doesn't seem at all defensive about it: "I think I was happy to just follow the mood of the songs, which is pretty dark and moody, and just have production that was appropriate to that. I think it's nice to set up a mood and keep it consistent throughout the record."
Though consistency isn't always lauded as a virtue, in Mann's case it's satisfying rather than dull. With its warm, thrumming guitars, its vintage synths and lush string sections, Lost in Space is defiantly pretty, state-of-the-art chamber-pop that showcases its author's prodigious melodic gifts. Her distinctive alto, by turns as heavy and rich as old satin and as clear and tremulous as a church bell, is always at the forefront. Early on, Mann's lyrics sometimes seemed too clever by half, straining metaphors to the breaking point; now they're every bit as acerbic but far more direct. They're also unremittingly sad: Love is a drug, but it's one that brings oblivion, not euphoria. Killing the pain may be possible, but only for seconds at a time. Happiness requires self-delusion and self-abasement.
Take these lines from the closing track, perhaps Mann's saddest and most beautiful composition to date: So baby, kiss me like a drug, like a respirator/And let me fall into the dream of the astronaut/Where I get lost in space that goes on forever/And you make all the rest just an afterthought/And I believe it's you who could make it better/Though it's not. Elsewhere on the record, she avers that "all the perfect drugs/and Superheroes/Wouldn't be enough/To bring me up to zero." That somehow Mann can write an entire album's worth of songs in this vein without seeming mawkish or morbid is her greatest strength as a songwriter and an interpreter.
Unfortunately, Mann's talents aren't the kind that the huge media conglomerates appreciate -- which is probably just as well, given that the music-industry behemoths that fucked her over seem ever closer to imploding, thanks to their own bloated incompetence. "I think [the music industry] is doing a lot wrong," she says. "Obviously, people downloading music is a problem, too -- there's a whole generation of people who can't even conceive of the idea of buying a CD. If you're getting enjoyment from an artist, you should support their career; it's only fair. But I think the record companies did a lot to contribute to the idea that music is disposable. You have to give people value for their money, or you can't really expect to get their money. When you have these acts that are basically just a jingle for the image, which is the thing that sells, this vague lifestyle idea, at the end of the day you put down $15 and don't really get anything. The music has to be the focus of it. It can't be a jingle for the way the person looks because you can't buy that for yourself. It's like the advertising snake eating its tail."
Fortunately, Mann has figured out a way to beat the system. Although she'll never get much airplay on triple-A radio, she's gotten just enough exposure on TV and film to reach a small but loyal audience. She's the first to admit that she's unusually lucky: "I got a lot of recognition from the Magnolia thing, so my profile was large enough to be able to parlay that into a distribution deal and get records in the stores and have people know who I was enough to sell a few records, even without a big company marketing and promoting the record for me. I'd imagine that I have it easier than most people do."
Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that Mann's a big fan of the television series The West Wing, that liberal-arts fantasyland where smart people prevail and justice is served without soul-killing compromise. When the producers asked her a few months back to film a performance for an episode set at a Rock the Vote function, she jumped at the chance. "It was really a last-minute thing," she says. "They wanted me to be sort of a backup because they wanted Joan Armatrading to do a song but didn't think they could get her in the country in time. I'm a big fan of the Wing, so I was happy when it turned out she couldn't do it. They really wanted this James Taylor song ["Shed a Little Light," from 1991's New Moon Shine], so I went to the studio and recorded it in a day, and then we filmed it a couple of days later."
Even the enlightened Bartlet administration isn't ready for a Mann original, it seems. But at least she's getting heard in the real world.