Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra
Theatre Is Evil
, September 18th, 2012 12:00
The problem with Amanda Palmer is that the 'stuff' tends to overshadow the music: She's a social media obsessive, a born exhibitionist who's frequently naked on the internet, an overt and proudly opinionated feminist who always has a ton of creative projects on the go, and somewhere down the line she developed a baffling fascination with the ukulele.
The very week her album is released she's embroiled in an online tussle with various musical bodies following her appeal for string and horn players to join her on tour for nothing more than free beer and a good time. It's triggered a fascinating debate about the value of the artist, not least at the Quietus, in which Palmer has been eloquent even on the back foot while everyone from Steve Albini to the American Federation of Musicians have attempted to put the boot in.
It's a diverting argument in every sense: yet again no-one is talking about the songs. Often lost is the reason people fell for Amanda Palmer in the first place, as the mesmeric frontwoman of 'Brechtian Punk Cabaret' duo the Dresden Dolls, who could hammer heart-in-her-mouth ballads and furious piano-driven teeth-rattlers while smeared in facepaint and occasionally her own blood. She's a genuine talent with a lyrical knack for lovelorn honesty, anger and vicious wit. At her best she's part Ben Folds Five, part Babes In Toyland.
Theatre Is Evil suffers the same problem as the woman herself, as the presentation and context is so big and impressive it threatens to overshadow the music: the crowd-funded project that took a million dollars in advance and defied the accepted record label model, performed on tour by hired hands and giddy volunteers. That's not the story of the music at all. It's one of many things Theatre Is Evil is not - it's not the thunder and fury of the best Dresden Dolls moments, nor the elegant sketches of her previous solo effort Who Killed Amanda Palmer. It's not, thankfully, the quirkier-than-thou experiments of her album of ukulele Radiohead covers or the Evelyn, Evelyn concept record, which were both occasionally brilliant but ultimately a bit trying. No, this is a proper evolution of Amanda Palmer, her piano backed by a full rock band with the smarter end of 80s pop (Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, The Bangles and Four Non Blondes) firmly in her sights. If that suggests the sound of Pink fronting the Killers then, occasionally, guilty as charged, but for the most part Theatre Is Evil is a satisfying step forward for an already compelling artist.
This isn't a record you dismiss on one spin and parts require some work from the listener, but given proper attention Theatre Is Evil unfolds into something multilayered and quite lovely. Opener 'Smile (Pictures Or It Didn't Happen)' is a perfect example, on first listen its synthy histrionics are cluttered and overwhelming, by the third it has become a sumptuous monster of minor-key pop. Palmer is a teasing mistress at making you wait for the chorus, but when it comes it's always huge. When the big (and it is big) hook in 'Do It With A Rock Star' finally hits after a couple of minutes of messy new wave, you want to gulp it down like lemonade. She pulls the same trick on 'Want It Back' and 'Melody Dean', properly masterful pop moments embedded like gems. Elsewhere the ballads show a clear development without sacrificing the ability to channel raw emotion that always marked her starker moments. 'The Bed Song' is a proper, heartbreaking masterpiece of grown up writing, while 'Grown Man Cry' nails the icy atmospherics of Disintegration-era Cure.
You can see why people take against Amanda Palmer. Her creative output is so varied and her internet presence so ubiquitous she always risks being defined by it. It's easy to dismiss her as a flighty, petulant, chronic over-sharer, because she is all of those things. But don't be distracted, don't be deceived - those elements both feed and camouflage a unique talent and Theatre Is Evil is definitive proof that there is substance behind the 'stuff'.