Theatre Is Evil
71:16 min • 8 Ft. Records • September 10, 2012
I love Amanda Palmer. There, I’ve said it. I love her “fuck you” punk cabaret attitude – I love seeing her play live, and I think she’s an incredibly interesting and powerful artist. I’ve never really loved her music, however.
Rising to fame, of some sorts, in punk cabaret outfit The Dresden Dolls, Amanda became a figure of bare naked feminism – an artist against convention. Anarchic, but still beautiful and fragile. All corsets, crazy pencilled on eyebrows and hairy armpits. As much David Bowie androgyny as she was Weimar Cabaret, it was inevitable that at some point she would break away from the confines of The Dresden Dolls and step out on her own. After her first solo album, the brilliantly titled Who Killed Amanda Palmer, she ended her contract with Road Runner Records over artistic disputes, and set up on her own, and has since run her entire career through the internet. The only artist to do this so successfully, she has funded the brilliant Theatre Is Evil by fans donating money, buying bundles that included everything from an art book to a private performance for 50 of your friends, depending on how much you were willing to give. The result is the album Amanda wanted to make, and it shows. Jam packed full of ’80s influences, insightful and moving lyrics, and killer pop hooks, it’s the perfect bridge from her personality, that I loved so much, to her music, which I thought was ok! This is more than ok. Much more.
With a brilliantly dark Weimar opening, courtesy of Australian Cabaret beauty Meow Meow, we are introduced to Amanda’s new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, and thrown into her best collection of material yet.
There’s a very early highlight in third track ‘The Killing Type’, with its Talking Heads inspired chorus and sharp, storytelling lyrics, with Amanda insisting she’s “not the killing type” whilst clearly insinuating the opposite. It’s perfect dark pop, and hasn’t left my head for days. In fact, it was difficult to get past this track to move on to the rest of the album … The confrontational,
Do you wanna dance, Do you wanna fight,
Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?
came at us on ‘Do It With A Rockstar’, the first track Amanda sent out to her fans. It’s a glam rock proposition from a rockstar, listing all the reasons her conquest should stay, all the while coming across as slightly inebriated,
Wait, wait, wait – I’ll be fine in a minute,
but in the end, she keeps coming back to the line, “you can do it with a rockstar”. The song, like a lot of the material here, almost reads as a monologue set to one of the greatest pop hooks of all time – the repetition in this instance giving us the perfect feeling of drunk desperation. ‘Want It Back’, and its accompanying video in which the songs lyrics are drawn over Amanda’s naked body, is a catchy as hell ’80s inspired number, with the sing-a-long chorus of,
It doesn’t matter if you want it back,
You’ve given it away…
and would be a stand out track had it not just followed the best songs of her career.
‘Grown Man Cry’ starts off as a proper ’80s power ballad, complete with slamming doors and reverb agogo, only rather than sounding like she’s singing the contents of a Hallmark Card, Amanda’s trademark sharp lyrics cut though, as the music takes a turn for the punk cabaret, with increasing thumping drums and stabbing staccato piano, before being engulfed in a guitar solo that kicks us out of our Heart meets Dresden Dolls nightmare, only for the song to drop back down to ballad territory again. The conclusion of the song leads brilliantly into ‘Trout Heart Replica’, a song that resonates with me more than anything else I have heard this year.
Killing things is not that hard, it’s hurting that’s the hardest part,
And when the wizard gets to me, I’m asking for a smaller heart.
I remember exactly where I was when that lyric hit me – I was at the Village Underground in East London, watching my second Amanda Palmer show in a week (long story!). I’m not known for my relationship successes and had pulled another blinder at this point, so was feeling fragile, and have never had a lyric wind me in the way that line did. The album version is also a testament to Amanda’s bravery as an artist. The vocal is raw, her voice cracks, but that is the beauty of it. She’s not afraid to let her voice convey as much emotion as her lyrics, and the sparse instrumentation on this song breaks my heart. There’s a lot of piano, there’s a saw, and when we need it, we are engulfed by sound, but only when we need to be, and that suits me fine.
Elsewhere, we have the thumping ‘Lost’, which recalls ’90s bands such as Sleeper and Echobelly as much as it does New Romanticism. Fragile and haunting, the storytelling ballad ‘The Bed Song’ is still as devastating on my fifth listen as it was on its first, and I’m sure will continue to be. I don’t want to say any more, just listen to it. And have tissues (if you don’t cry, then you have no soul!!). ‘Massachusetts Avenue’ describes a situation I imagine we have all experienced; a road in our hometown which vividly reminds us of someone. It’s these moments that produce personal revelations, all the while set to stomping melodies, that give this album its power. ‘Melody Dean’ intentionally references My Sharona, which is never a bad thing (though it does make me want to go into a petrol station and dance around … but I’m just showing my age now!). The epic ‘Berlin’ is 7 minutes of haunting indulgence, and ‘Olly Olly Oxen Free’ is the rousing shout-a-long end we were all secretly hoping for.
In many ways, Theatre Is Evil is Amanda Palmer’s masterwork. It takes its influence from glam rock, new wave and punk, managing to make some songs sound like all three at points, but nowhere in the process does Amanda lose her identity. The hooks are epic, the lyrics are clever, funny, dark and moving, and you can rock out to the majority of the music. It’s more punk than it is cabaret, which I’m sure is the intention, and recalls everything from The Fall to Kenickie. Will it please her fans? Who knows. But, as someone who finds her punk cabaret roots hard to penetrate, I devoured this album the moment it hit my iPhone. This is PROPER pop music. Catchy from start to finish, with flawless and brave production, that manages to be all genres, whilst essentially being none. It made me dance, it made me cry, and it made me dance again. It deserves to bring Amanda to a new audience of people who will fall in love with her crazy eyebrows and armpit hair as much as I did, but this time they’ll be seduced by the music too.