With Mental Health, Rae Spoon embraces and celebrates the everyday journeys of survival experienced by people living with mental illness.
There’s a fine line between art and execution when it comes to concept albums. On the one hand, the lived experience of mental illness — whether living with it yourself or supporting and caring for someone who has it — offers rich and nuanced inspiration for music. On the other hand, focusing an entire album on the subject matter may end up coming across as overly didactic and moralizing, ostensibly detracting from what was initially intended.
For an artist, sometimes the stakes are just too high not to follow their muse. The importance of igniting conversations and turning the spotlight on an issue outweighs the risk of sounding pedantic. Such is the case with Mental Health, the tenth full-length from Rae Spoon. Written, recorded, and released with no-time-to-waste efficiency less than twelve months after 2018’s bodiesofwater, Mental Health is a curt, eight-song collection. Of the album, Spoon says it’s informed by their own journey with mental health and looks at the different perspectives and effects mental illness has on the broader LQBTQ+ community.
Speaking with Femme Art Review recently, Spoon recognizes that “there’s still a lot of stigma about mental health and stigma around queerness and [being] LGBTQ+. It’s important to make space for marginalized communities. Often, we lack services, or you can’t go to the hospital since they’re not going to get your pronoun right. Trauma issues aren’t going to go away but there are ways to find different tools. I was thinking a lot about that and also that it’s not something that needs to be cured. Like getting out of ‘caring’ culture [which doesn’t address mental health as an ongoing struggle], and instead, talking about the everyday journeys of survival.”
With Mental Health, Spoon embraces and celebrates those everyday journeys. Backed by the Pack A.D.’s Becky Black and Maya Miller, Spoon makes the most of the album’s under-thirty-minute running time. “I Can’t Sleep” and “Go Away” uses bouncy pop to punctuate that symptoms like insomnia and depression are unwelcome; those living with them often cannot overcome them on their own. “Blaring” is a sensitive ballad about how the realities of mental illness get lost in the noise of inaccuracies: “Lies are better / Lies are louder / Than the blaring truth.” “Money” is a synth-driven indictment of the political and bureaucratic failure to properly support and fund positive mental health supports. “You gotta have money to buy the pills,” they sing, “But you gotta have pills to make the money / So where am I supposed to get the pills / If I don’t have the money?”
The melody and meter of “Money” may not be Spoon’s tidiest, but the sentiment — like that of Mental Health overall — is direct and pointed. Ultimately, whether or not Rae Spoon sacrifices artistry for urgency is of little relevance. Mental Health the album and the illness that inspired it are not pretty. Presenting it as such does a disservice to those living with it and those loving and caring for them. For Spoon, the art isn’t in finding the balance between the music and its message, it’s in blurring the lines so thoroughly that they are inseparable.