So much has been written about Amanda Palmer that it obscures her music. Palmer is playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors this coming Friday, August 9 with her band the Grand Theft Orchestra at around 8:30: noir cabaret band Rosin Coven opens at 7:30 and you had better be there early if you’re going. For those who might be interested, this is an attempt to make sense of Palmer’s most recent album Theatre Is Evil (famously available as a name-your-price download at her website) without letting any of the media or social media static get in the way. If you dial up the Pitchfork app the second you get a signal, or you’re already in the Cult of Amanda, this won’t mean a thing to you: it’s for the suspiciously large percentage of us who aren’t in the clique. For what it’s worth, Palmer really gives you a lot of bang for the buck: a grand total of nineteen cuts including several b-sides and a full-color insert.
This is a glamrock album, a loosely thematic collection that traces the predictable decline of a doomed relationship: the album title could just as easily be called Drama Is Evil. Palmer’s songwriting draws on a long tradition of British bands that starts with David Bowie and runs through Suede and Blur and Pulp. When she’s at the top of her game, Palmer is plaintive and insightful: her songs can be shattering. When she’s not, the sounds veer closers to Paramore or the mostly forgotten infestation of focus-grouped Myspace-era Fueled by Ramen acts. Guitarist Chad Raines plays terse, lingering sustained lines and big crunchy chords; bassist Jherek Bischoff likes big dramatic slides up the scale as drummer Michael McQuilken holds down an explosive, pounding beat.
Palmer is a solid tunesmith and has a flair (oh, what flair!) for the dramatic. She likes a lot of reverb on her angst-ridden alto vocals. Her worldview is cynical, her sense of humor bleak but absolutely spot on: those who haven’t heard this have no idea of how deliciously funny she can be.
After a big flourish of an intro, the album beigns with Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen), a synth-fueled anthem that ponders the point where “everybody in the world was either getting killed or getting footage of the killing” – much as the songs are an interpersonal chronicle, Palmer never loses sight of the world outside. The Killing Type is a pacifist anthem – as it builds to an ominous reverb-drenched crescendo, the one thing that Palmer wants to kill is apathy. Do It with a Rockstar manages to be both funny and poignant: “All the practice in the world won’t get me good at loneliness,” Palmer wails. Even rock stars have their bad days and don’t always get what they want.
After a diversion toward top 40, Palmer brings back the laughs with Grown Men Cry: her critique of corporate radio pop lyrics is hysterical, and she nails it. And then abruptly shifts the mood into moody piano-based art-rock with Trout Heart Replica and its fish metaphors (which will recur later). A brief, mightily swelling circus-rock interlude follows, and then Lost, a catchy, death-obsessed anthem.
Bottomfeeder evokes Aimee Mann with its stately broken chords and more of that fish imagery, a pensive jab at a drama queen to snap out of it. The album’s centerpiece, and most powerful moment is The Bed Song. Over chilly, sterile, waltzing piano, Palmer traces the long, slow decline of a WASPy couple. By the time you see them, the best is already over, and the cold grows more deadly as they make the jump from sketchy industrial loft to comfortable condo. You think you know where this song is going, but you don’t: as a portrait of existential angst, it’s telling, and it’s crushing.
Massachusetts Avenue brings back the powerpop, with a bitter, heartbroken bite and a similarly crushing ending, in a cemetery. Palmer picks up the pace with Melody Dean and its My Sharona quotes, then the towering anthem, Berlin. It’s Palmer’s brooding take on a familiar theme, angst-ridden American expat in search of a “space where your brain and your heart collide…a practical place you can hide.” But it doesn’t turn out that way. The cycle ends with the savage Olly Olly Oxen Free, which could be about a death or just an imagined one, its drama queen “gardening a rotting bed of Raygun era icons” and eventually leaving a situation where “your father, your sister, your drummer are sorting through your Soft Cell tapes and your Lifesaver collection.”
The b-sides are good. The vengefully bouncy cabaret-pop tune Denial Thing might be the key to the album, while The Living Room sounds like Jenifer Jackson singing a Botanica epic (although she would have done it in twenty words instead of five hundred). The Ukulele Song, which went viral a couple of years ago, remains pretty much unsurpassed as brilliantly vitriolic pro-art antiwar statement. The final track is the dreamy, regret-tinged From St. Kilda to Fitzroy.
Who is the audience for this? Beyond the glamrock crowd – some who will see this as camp or kitsch and completely miss the point – it could be people who like Pink Floyd. Or the women and girls who gravitate toward lush, orchestrated sounds but can’t get into Roger Waters’ male-centric world. As a strong woman with a perceptive worldview to match her insight into the psychopathology of human relations, Palmer could be a female Waters.