Over on my “industry” blog Channel Nowhere, I used occasionally to post a “Top 10 albums of the year” type thing. 2013 was a decent year for music with releases from the old guard leading the field – ZZ Top, The Cult, Van Halen, Neil Young and so on. The top spot, however, went to Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, of which I had the deluxe download version, having been a cheapskate-level Kickstarter backer.
In the years since, Palmer’s output has been hard to keep up with. Via the Patreon crowd-funding platform, she regularly issues individual songs, EPs and so forth. There have been Bowie and Prince tributes and more besides, including an album of duets (recorded with her dad), a book – and a baby. There’s even been a solo vocal/piano version of Theatre is Evil in its entirety, Piano is Evil. Coming up is a new studio album recorded in collaboration with Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots. I haven’t heard half of that lot, but I’ll catch up in time.
In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting Theatre is Evil, having recently picked up a copy on CD – it’s a handsome object, a slip-cased three-panel digi-pack with a lavish lyrics-and-art booklet. What follows here is an updated version of the original review I posted as part of that “Top 10” piece from 2013, which began: Much heralded due to a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, it would be too easy, amongst all the stats and admittedly startling figures, to lose sight of the fact that this is a superb album …
Out-with being only slightly familiar with the music of her punk cabaret duo, Dresden Dolls, I first became aware of Amanda (Fucking) Palmer a few years ago, when doing some industry research regarding sales and distribution models (sorry to break it to you folks, but it ain’t all glamour, this business we call show). It was about the time that Palmer had ditched her previous label, Roadrunner, and released what was for me the song of 2010 (Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass). This led me to check out her sole Roadrunner release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? which turned out to be an apparently effortless fusion of rock, cabaret, prog, electronica and more; great songs, all backed with a bunch of cool videos. I was sold. Then there was an excellent 2011 EP, Nighty Night, as part of art-rock supergroup project 8in8 which was, you guessed it, one of my favourite releases of that year (although I gave her ukelele-led Radiohead covers album a miss, what with not being a fan of either Radiohead or the ukulele).
Palmer’s second ‘full-on’ solo album, Theatre Is Evil – actually her first with impressive new band The Grand Theft Orchestra – builds on everything that came before it. There are kitchen-sink arrangements, the sound is huge, and the influences are much as described before – cabaret, prog, art rock, electronica, with hints of straight-up rock, pop and punk. There are echoes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and David Bowie which are largely subtle, part of the musical palette, while some references are made more knowingly with a pair of back-to-back tracks – Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean – giving nods to the same Prince song (I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man) while still managing to sound entirely distinct from each other (Melody Dean also quotes My Sharona both musically and lyrically), and on Bottomfeeder, guitarist Chad Raines stylistically quotes Count Ian Blair’s work from The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack to great effect.
Most importantly though, underneath all the ambitious instrumentation and clever intertextuality lies a set of great songs, brilliantly performed. Palmer delivers like Patti Smith meets Debby Harry by way of the theatricality of Tim Curry or Freddie Mercury, with the latter’s penchant for a piano flourish. As a lyricist she combines the raw poeticism of Smith or Lou Reed with the verbal dextrousness of Ani DiFranco and the unsettling frankness of Loudon Wainwright III, crafting pieces that are at once funny and moving. This is best illustrated by The Bed Song, the only solo piano/vocal performance on the album, telling the story of the core of a relationship unravelling from the beginning to the very end, as melancholy as it sounds but still taking time out to namecheck Van Halen and Slayer. Scoring huge “album of the year” points right there, obviously. Meanwhile Do It With a Rock Star comes on like a hard-edged party anthem spin on Wainwright’s plaintive Motel Blues.
So there you have it. In a year in which I took great joy in the on-form output of the hoary rock gods of my youth, Amanda Palmer knocked me out by outdoing them all. I said in that original Channel Nowhere piece that “Theatre Is Evil is a stunning album – maybe the first Great Album of the decade”. I stand by that – four years on it’s just as commanding.
Check out Amanda Palmer’s website: www.amandapalmer.net