Two hit records (the Magnolia soundtrack and her third solo album, Bachelor Number Two) and an Oscar nomination (Magnolia's "Save Me") later, Mann is back with Lost In Space, released on her own SuperEgo label. (This is the first time since 1988 that the label for which she recorded an album is the label that actually released it.) She's had the biggest wave of buzz and press behind her since…well, since ever. Not even Welcome Home, the 1986 sophomore effort from her former band 'Til Tuesday (they of "Voices Carry" fame), had this much praise and well wishing behind it. There's just one problem: The album is startlingly unadventurous. It still has a slew of trademark heart stompers on it, but for someone who's made a name for herself by doing her own thing and not conceding to the wishes of any record company weasel, the album is surprisingly safe. How on earth did that happen?
Leadoff track and first single "Humpty Dumpty" has some vintage Mann-erisms ("I'm not the girl you once put your faith in/Just someone who looks like me"), but its chorus leans a bit too heavily on "Stupid Thing" from Whatever, her 1993 solo debut. Its somber tone isn't going to get her a ton of airplay, either. "Invisible Ink" is perhaps the album's finest moment, a moving sweep from plaintive folk to a full-blown string section finale. The first half of the album is solid, though I'm not sure about the numerous drug references ("Let me be your heroin", "It's all about drugs, it's all about shame", "All the perfect drugs and superheroes wouldn't be enough to bring me up to zero"). Is it just a metaphor or does someone close to her have a problem?
The truly odd thing about Lost In Space is that it doesn't sound that much different from her other work, but something is definitely off. Slippery George Harrison-esque guitars? Check. Lumbering Ringo-ish drum fills? Got those, too. But the overall production, by touring guitarist Michael Lockwood and Mike Denneen, an old mate from her days in Boston, lacks the wild imagination that Jon Brion, the producer wunderkind who manned the boards on all of Mann's previous solo work, brought to the mix. The records that Mann and Brion made together were far more challenging, using makeshift drum kits, weirdo segue ways, and oddball drum programming. It had a kitchen-sink charm to it that is completely lacking here. The production on Space is like a copy of a copy. It may look and sound the same at first glance, but closer inspection reveals a lack of sharpness. The decision to tone down the harmony vocals, one of Mann's trademarks, is also confounding.
The production alone is not what undoes Space, however. The album also contains some of the laziest songs Mann's ever done. There honestly isn't a single song on any of her previous solo records that this reviewer doesn't like, but that streak comes to a screeching halt with "The Moth," which has no hook and the most throwaway lyrics she's ever written. In fact, with the notable exception of "Invisible Ink," the latter half of Lost In Space leaves very little impression at all.
The biggest irony of all is that the music press is falling over themselves to praise this album, but it's truthfully the weakest thing she's done since Voices Carry. It's still better than the best work of most artists, but when compared to the rest of her catalog, it simply doesn't measure up. If only she had released this album back in 1996, when no one was paying any attention to her.