Soundtrack albums are a tricky beast, especially when they are more than simple scores. How much can a soundtrack be enjoyed without the context of the visual piece it accompanies? There’s a reason why Björk’s “Scatterheart” doesn’t land with the appropriate emotional impact without watching Selma Ježková loom over David Morse. Without watching a young boy lost in his own would-be wonderland, Karen O’s “Hideaway” may still be lovely and sad, but it doesn’t pack the same melancholy sting.
Aimee Mann was initially going to follow up her critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning 2017 record Mental Illness with a set of songs for a stage musical adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted, about her time as a patient in a psych ward in the 1960s. The book was already adapted into the 1999 James Mangold film that gave Angelina Jolie her Oscar and Winona Ryder one of her last meaty roles for years. This new musical got delayed, as so many things did, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Mann decided to compile her work on the show into a new record, which is now being given to us as Queens of the Summer Hotel.
The thing is: this is basically a soundtrack album, just without the piece it’s accompanying, and Mann doesn’t do too much to soften or distract from that fact. The compositions sound gently theatrical, it’s a trick she hasn’t exactly strayed from in the past but it is cast in sharper relief here. There are numerous characters either indirectly mentioned or with songs sung from their own perspectives, though there are no names given. This near-complete removal of context, this lack of detail, leads to a game of trying to connect-the-dots and figure out who’s who that sometimes distracts from the album itself. We lack the connective tissue that would have doubtlessly occurred in the scenes between these songs, and with that, we lack some essential facts.
Full disclosure: I have seen the film several times, though I have never read the book, and Kaysen hasn’t been shy about expressing qualms with some of the beats the film changed or exaggerated for Hollywood appeal. As such, though, I cannot with any authority act like I know everything about Kaysen’s memoir or her time at the hospital, but I still can’t fathom the level of difficulty there’d be of trying to really get into this story without even a cursory knowledge of the events. Certain characters get a showcase song, like the doomed Daisy on the chipper-but-heartbreaking “Home By Now”, but if I had never seen the film, I don’t think I’d have much clue what’s going on here.
This trend continues more heavily on other songs. Tracks like “At the Frick Museum” have such a specificity that it’s almost alienating without knowing the bigger picture. “In Mexico” is clearly meant to be a devastating portrait of someone introspectively explaining their own behaviors and motives, but we lack the characterization to have it land very deeply. The ultra-brief “Checks” is a motif that is most likely about the patients needing to go through the tedious routine of swallowing their pills and getting checked under their tongues to ensure they swallowed. It even gets a reprise later, only adding to the theatricality of the album that would likely come alive more vividly and movingly on stage.
Now, all of this being said, there is still much to enjoy here. It is, after all, an Aimee Mann record, and she is a writer of wit, sharpness, and emotional exactitude. She’s able to turn even mundane observations into compelling word play, and has a profoundly impressive knack for coming up with rhymes that feel snug but also powerful, never rote or perfunctory. Through her cleverness and deep empathy, Mann is able to keep things afloat, and often even allow the pathos of the story to break through. Themes of regret, confusion, self-care, doubt, the will to live and more do arise, if guarded a bit by the lack of thematic context.
“Give Me Fifteen”, which sounds like it’s from the perspective of a doctor at the ward (though, again, we lack the context to truly know that), includes biting, acidic lines like “Women who complain about the time they’re seen / Sing a different tune when they’re on Thorazine.” On “You Don’t Have the Room”, Mann’s character ends things by regretfully intoning, “I’m sure a stronger girl could rise above / The twin desires of dignity and love / But you don’t have the room,” as flutes and strings ebb and flow beneath. The narrator of “Burn It Out” asks, pleadingly, about burning out memories and the “spirits and specters that live in the sulphur streams” so that she no longer has to see them.
On the best track here, “Suicide is Murder”, Mann gives us the closest approximation of a song that feels both totally right for the stage but is still grounded in the pop sphere. The piano skips dolefully, Mann’s voice sounds steely and strong, low cellos bellow. All this over deeply sad lines like “Blood from a cut on your wrist / Checking for veins that you missed” and “Count off the friends who would care / If there are none, then you’re there.” Calling the titular act an act of “rehearsed tragedy” seems to suggest that while our narrator may empathize with a suicidal person she’s singing this to, she may also be trying to express all the irrevocable pain that comes with such an act, for those you leave in your wake.
And yet, again, this is all sort of a shot in the dark, or at least in the dusk. There are so many ways in which Mann makes clear these songs were always meant to accompany a more thorough and detailed story, even on its strongest ones. Overall, the orchestrations and melodies are lovely and surprisingly catchy; the production is pristine; the lyrics are potent, smart, and moving; and Mann’s singing has rarely sounded finer, often layering in tight harmonies. But too often, it feels like we’re missing too much of the story to fully enjoy Queens of the Summer Hotel, to the point where it kind of feels like Mann is constantly withholding various secrets from us. It’s a surprising record, and another good example of what makes Mann such an indispensable songwriter, but it’s hard for most of these songs to stand alone – we’re left wondering what’s really going on between these melancholy ruminations.