Nobody Actually Wants a Fucking Martyr: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre Is Evil Reviewed

Amanda Palmer hasn’t released a proper full-length studio album since Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008.  Since then she has left her former record label, Roadrunner Records, released albums of cover versions of Radiohead and Velvet Underground songs, comprised one half of conjoined twin singing sisters Evelyn Evelyn, released a corresponding album and book to go along with the Evelyn Evelyn project, formed a new Melbourne-based band called the Grand Theft Orchestra whose name was coined via twitter crowdsourcing, made a bunch of new enemy/critics due to crowdsourcing musician/fans for her current tour who weren’t initially to be remunerated with anything other than “hugs, beer, and merch”, released a combination studio/live album with an Antipodean theme which was inspired by a tour and much time spent in Australia and New Zealand, reneged on her decision to not pay her crowdsourced bandmembers, and likely made several times as many fans as enemies due to her positivity and generosity and enthusiasm and high rate of output and fucking incredible work ethic.  Maybe that’s why it took so long for me to write this review.  She did all those things and I got mildly tired writing this paragraph.  She kind of exhausts me.

What is definitely clear in all of this is that not being on a proper record label suits Amanda Fucking Palmer.  It suits her very well.  Despite the fact that Who Killed Amanda Palmer was one of my favourite releases of 2008 and that I like it better than her output with The Dresden Dolls, she has blown that record out of the water with Theatre Is Evil*.  The people who talk about Palmer becoming more famous for funding her album through Kickstarter than for the album itself don’t seem to have taken a very close listen to it.  I mean, the Kickstarter experiment was spectacular.  If you haven’t seen the video she posted in order to promote Theatre Is Evil and gain backers, please take a look at it below.  Palmer is absolutely at the forefront of selling independent, interesting music and art in a post-music business world.  She believes in digital files to be shared as widely and freely as possible, she promotes beautiful and collectible physical copies and art objects as supplementary to the music, and she uses the internet to actually engage with her fans and get a sense of what that market wants.  She is now doing precisely what it is she wants to do in both artistic and business senses and succeeding wildly at both.  Of course, we are here for the music first and foremost, so let’s get to that…

Cabaret performer Meow Meow introduces the whole shebang, with a grainy, practically sepia-tinted flourish auf Deutsch, of course.  “Smile” is immediately distorted and maximalist and sounds very much like it was made on the cusp of the 1990s.  Not just an invitation to enter the world of Theatre Is Evil, “Smile” acts like an eddy into which the listener is pulled.  It’s magnetic.  Also it’s about partying and living in the moment and just living.  It captures the paranoia of being stoned and worried about the end of the world which could maybe happen at any time and the magic of being alive at the same time as other people who are alive and being alive together.  It is smeared and distorted and swollen.

If we’re going to continue to talk in years and decades and nostalgia which I think maybe we will, “The Killing Type” is the new wave of 1979 done AFP style.  A personal treatise on what a person who’s “not the killing type” would kill for, it was released as a single on Theatre Is Evil with an accompanying video a couple months back that crystallises the kinds of passion that can quickly turn violent.  Likewise, the self-aware control of the song’s beginning gradually gives way to angry aggression and complete loss of control.  “I just can’t explain how good it feels” is overlaid with “die die die die die” while a short burst of machine gun noise signals the end and climax of the song.  “Do It With a Rockstar” picks up in the same violent vein.  Pianos crash, drums and guitars squelch, and voices echo as Palmer contrasts the supposed glamour of being a “rock star” with the reality that is so much more boredom and loneliness than dancing, drinking, and making out.

“Want It Back” is Theatre Is Evil’s first single, released way back in spring, and it’s one of Palmer’s best songs to date.  She has said that it’s about the expiration date on a relationship and how it would be nice to rewind and re-experience the best parts of that relationship again, but the joy of this song is its walls of words and the way they tumble and conjoin and roll around with the bouncing, jubilant piano.  Again, the video clip for “Want It Back” is a perfect visual expression of this, with inky animated words scrawling themselves all over Palmer’s body to form curlicues that migrate to the band and then outside the house she’s in, decorating red bricks and pipes before returning to her body and to bed.

“Grown Man Cry” may be the only song here that’s of a lesser calibre, but it nonetheless has something to say.  It’s a criticism of fake sensitive dudes that are only really trying to get laid, and while musically it’s a good song, the subject matter is perhaps a little juvenile for my taste.  This is potentially because this song reminds me strongly of an old article from Bust magazine that maligned said dudes and coined the term ‘wimpster’ to describe them and their whiny, ultimately vacuous attempts at feminist sensitivity.  It’s not an irrelevant or even unnecessary topic, but it feels slightly beneath Palmer to approach it in this literal way.  “Trout Heart Replica” is another song that other people seem to like more than I do.  It’s again on the literal and sentimental side for me, but the whirlpools of piano that accompany the verses are lovely.  Accented with claustrophobically close string lines and Palmer’s raw voice, shifting less than seamlessly between registers and ranges, the music to me is more triumphant than the words.

“Lost” is loud, jumpy, rhythmic, and textured, with stabbing piano knives, occasionally shifting into beautiful harmonies that never last for more than a few bars.  Its delivery is joyful, though primal and brutal, and it promotes a more nuanced reading of the lyrics, which are about moving on with life after losing someone.  “Bottomfeeder” is more minimalist, a synth- and piano-driven song with a subtle but unmistakeable strut that makes it addictive.  It breaks halfway through for a country-tinged guitar solo that slides and swoops while the beat stays cool and sharp.  Palmer’s imperfect voice is particularly beautifully showcased here, catching on the jagged edges of larger intervals and quivering with emotion.  The mix even works well when all the instruments rise in volume and intensity and her voice is swathed in echo, overdubs, and noise.

Reverting back to Dresden Dolls and vintage AFP territory, “The Bed Song” is old-fashioned and terribly sad.  The piano part sounds like sun, filtered through clouds and dusty curtains, into a bedroom with a hardwood floor.  Palmer’s voice inhabits the story, becoming sweeter and softer or darker and bitterer as each scene dictates.  The scenes progress from content and happy to hopeless and confused while the corresponding beds move from tiny and filthy to luxurious and overlarge to six feet under and topped by headstones.  It is fraught with feelings, many of them contradictory, but it stays away from sentimentality with its fixation on honesty and reality.  “Melody Dean” is, in Palmer’s words, “my first out and proud song about being bisexual” and it’s breathtaking.  It’s a tale of being caught under someone’s thumb and revolting against that with every fibre in your being except the part that actually makes you cheat.  When she’s not shrieking about her sexuality (“I like to spread her out on different crackers, yeah, I like the way she looks”) Palmer becomes more solemn, repeating “I get torn to pieces for the stupidest reasons.” Perhaps strangely, my favourite bit is immediately after the first refrain, when the punky guitar is replaced by a buoyant classical-influenced synthesizer that tumbles through an interlude and is shortly joined by blindingly bright horns.  It is magnificent.

“Berlin” is full-on melodramatic piano wallowing.  It starts slowly and poignantly but in the second part becomes full and stomping and resentful.  Palmer shouts “WHAT?” as the song then becomes an exquisite cabaret finale, swaggering so heavily that it has no choice but to return to the heartbreak of the opening.  It cries into its own arms in the rain.  “Olly Olly Oxen Free” reverses all of those things and instead wallows in joy, freedom, and letting go.  She sings “olly olly oxen free, all the people you will never be, see no evil, hear no evil, capture me and throw the key away” like it’s a manifesto, and it really is.  Art doesn’t have to kill you.  Art doesn’t have to be serious.  Art doesn’t really matter that much if doing it makes you miserable.  Art is about pleasure and joy and sharing things and confidence and bringing people together.  This is sometimes explicitly stated but largely between the lines of every single note and word on this record.  It really couldn’t have been expressed better.

*A quick and nerdy note on the album’s title: when Palmer announced the title on twitter, fans from all over the world were quick to query as to whether the word ‘theatre’ would be spelled the American way or the British/Canadian way.  A twitter poll was quickly dispatched to help answer this question, and it seems the answers and final decision are rather evident from Theatre Is Evil’s title.  This makes me even more glad than I’m willing to admit, and I’m willing to admit quite a bit.

 

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Want It Back

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Lost

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Melody Dean

3 Comments

  1. […] her Kickstarter campaign raised over one million dollars, smashing through her intended target (see Laura’s review of Palmer’s Theatre is Evil album). Last month former Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner was pleasantly surprised (“fuck me outrageously” […]

  2. […] my review of Theatre is Evil here and read Larissa’s piece on Amanda Palmer and crowdfunding […]

  3. […] Read Laura’s review here. […]

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