Forget any disinformation you may have heard about Amanda Palmer being a dork or a loser – especially if that disinformation came from her. She’s made a small fortune pandering to that crowd. But she’s not one of them. Her husband outed her. There was a moment when they were ou tour, as novelist Neil Gaiman tells it on their new triple live album, where he explains to his new bride that he’s reticent to read a piece onstage which he thinks might not be up to snuff. Her response is not to worry, that even if it’s horrible, the crowd will love it anyway. Amanda Fucking Cynical Palmer? Oooooooh yeah.
On one hand, Palmer is punker than punk. Even though she’s surrounded by Republicans – or at least kids who will ditch their animal onesies and Dan Deacon playlists for McMansions the minute their trust funds kick in – she doesn’t shy away from important issues and plays wherever there are Occupiers. She’s a strong woman whose feminism informs her music without making it strident. She’s an eclectic tunesmith, a talented multi-instrumentalist and can be a riveting performer.
Yet Palmer can also be more indie than indie. Some of her recent songs, especially the ukulele numbers, have the carefully contrived ineptitude and preciousness that define indie rock. The backstory is that Palmer has been fighting her way through a creative dry spell, all the while needing to keep product rolling out in order to pay the bills. “Why should we worry when someone intelligent wants to write pop music, when there’s so much other shit wrong?” she protests, in that uke song that you may have heard (which, as she explains on the album, she wrote as a blog response since she was too hungover to come up with anything more coherent that particular morning). The answer to her question is that someone intelligent should be finding ways to fix all the shit that’s wrong instead of wasting their talent writing schlock. Palmer, being acutely self-aware, knows that better than anyone.
So in case you might assume that the An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman – streaming all the way through at Bandcamp -would be couplecore, it’s not. This isn’t greedy narcissists on the road selling overpriced meet-and-greets to their most clueless fans and then phoning in some half-baked bullshit. The two deliver. Part intimate chamber pop, part noir cabaret, part spoken word with lots of sardonic banter, the performances are surreal, sometimes haphazard, sometimes wickedly focused and ultimately a lot of fun.
Gaiman is the surprise star here. He’s not much of a poet and, by his own admission, not much of a singer either but he can wind a yarn with the best of them, and gives Palmer a run for her money on a handful of the more vaudevillian numbers. The best of those are a delicious cover of Leon Payne’s country classic Psycho (which the audience clearly doesn’t know) and a couple of similarly morbid, Irish-flavored ballads which are closer to Tom Lehrer than Nick Cave. And Gaiman’s stories are too good to spoil. He shows off his talent for evoking a specific milieu – a dreary British seaside town – on the ghost story that opens the album and follows that with a creepily hilarious tale about a stalker, an account of murder among Fourth Century religious nuts on the isle of Iona, and a snarky Hollywood insider-style account of Oscar night. He and Palmer have a lot in common: the gallows humor that fuels so much of their work, their theatrical side, their storytelling, their knack for finding the devil in the details. They make a good team.
Palmer splits her time between uke and piano. Gaiman’s droll delivery versus Palmer’s deadpan iciness on their cover of Making Whoopee is priceless, and reminds of Lorraine Leckie‘s recent collaborations with Anthony Haden-Guest. The uke-reggae nudist anthem Map of Tasmania (Australian slang for pussy) inspires a lusty audience singalong. Palmer joins with guest Jason Webley in a devious look back at driving her tourmates nuts in an overheated bus, celebrates her release from record label hell, and ends the album with a tight, defiant version of her antiwar/antiviolence classic Ukulele Anthem.
But her more subdued songs are the knockouts. Dear Old House is Palmer’s requiem for her childhood home, now sold, presumably, to yuppies with a kid who will festoon Palmer’s old room with Miley Cyrus posters. The piano cabaret song I Want You but I Don’t Need You is just as creepy as it is wryly funny, while the muted waltz Look Mummy No Hands is sort of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle but with the roles reversed. And her solo uke version of Death Cab for Cutie’s I Will Follow You into the Dark – dedicated to Ashlie Gough, who died at 23 at Occupy Vancouver – makes an aptly tender, haunting elegy.
As you would figure with such a talky album, there’s some TMI here – that seems to be the price Palmer is willing to pay to keep the crowdsourcing pipeline going, even as it gives the haters something to hate on. Is there anybody in the Palmer cult (or the Gaiman cult, for that mattter) who doesn’t already have their autographed and lipstick-kissed copies already? Probably not. But if only the haters could hear this, they’d realize the fun they’ve been missing.