(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Recording review - Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre Is Evil (2012)

A beguiling mix of artifice and art

If I was in the New Criticism camp (a la John Crowe Ransom), I'd listen closely to Theatre Is Evil but ignore any real life distraction about Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra. There would be plenty to ignore: her history with the punk-cabaret Dresden Dolls, her almost compulsive interaction with her fans, her groundbreaking success on Kickstarter, and her penchant for controversy, including the recent fight over paying volunteer musicians. Ransom would say none of that is relevant; the songs are independent of Palmer's intent or personality.

That kind of review would completely miss the point of an album like Theatre Is Evil. More than a singer, Palmer presents herself as an artist, specifically a performance artist. And in that mode, her new album is beguiling mix of artifice and art. Much like her public persona, the songs are often over-the-top. The bipolar energy sweeps from manic highs to devastating lows. But despite the occasional sense of caricature, Palmer invests each song with absolute raw commitment. Whether open, bleeding, and vulnerable or brash, knowing, and lusty, each song is presented as a piece of truth. The album is rich and theatrical, her public life is full of theatre, and her ironic message is "theatre is evil". But that subversive move doesn't rob Theatre Is Evil of its emotional impact or exuberance.

The album's showy trappings begin with a cabaret introduction of the band auf Deutsch. The Grand Theft Orchestra fills out Palmer's sound significantly, yet still retains some of the dark groove of her work in the Dresden Dolls. Want It Back offers a typical sample of the mix of synth pop and new wave that Theatre Is Evil favors. Keyboard washes kick it off, but the staccato pop bounce of piano and bass drive the song forward. The arrangement is rich as it supports Palmer's chanting lyrical flow. Bottomfeeder hits a moodier synth pop groove. But even at this slower pace, the band makes it feel lush.

Palmer also shows off her rock side. On Do It With a Rockstar, Her intro fades in then collapses into a solid Pat Benatar punch:
Do you wanna dance?
Do you wanna fight? 
Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?
Once the song is underway, it turns into an indie rock reworking of David Bowie's classic sound. Like Bowie's self-referencing lyrics, Palmer presents a stylized view of herself as a partying rock star, albeit with a touch of desperation. The larger band provides a strong guitar and heavy drumming, which sells the song's rock credibility. But the cock-rock bluster crosses with Palmer's lonely edge: "Are you really sure you want to go?"

Palmer's songwriting is as strong as ever. She finds subjects and perspectives that stray beyond the typical. On The Killing Type, the music feels a bit like XTC's post punk pop as she presents her pacifist ethical position. After drawing her clear boundaries, the song shifts from the philosophical to a sharper response, rooted in relationship issues:
I'm not the killing type...
But I would kill to make you feel
I don't mean kill someone for real
I couldn't do that, it is wrong 
But I can say it in a song (a song, a song)
And I'm saying it now
I'm saying it so
Even if you never hear this song
Somebody else will know
The contrast between her calm, reasonable pacifism and bubbling anger is a powerful example of repression.

Then on the moody Grown Man Cry, she's worn down by the emotional blackmail of a crying lover. She's frustrated, cynically seeing his tears as passive aggression:
For a while it was touching
For a while it was challenging
Before it became typical
Now it really isn't interesting
To see a grown man cry
It's an ironic followup to the sentiment on The Killing Type. The gender role reversal is also interesting, largely because Palmer doesn't let her perspective to slip into a stereotypical chauvinist response.

It's also nice to hear Palmer strip down to piano and voice, like on the pensive, haunted Tori Amos style of Trout Head Replica or the tragically beautiful The Bed Song. Sounding like Regina Spector covering Simon and Garfunkel's America, this latter tune starts out sweet and wistful as a couple begin as friends sharing a sleeping bag. The couple moves closer together then drift quietly apart without ever splitting. Eventually the gulf is too wide and it's heartbreaking:
And I still don't ask you, "What is the matter?"
Is it a matter of worse or better?
You take the heart failure, I'll take the cancer
I've long stopped wondering why you don't answer
The waltz rhythm and expressive piano melody keep the song from becoming too maudlin.

Without considering Palmer's background, Theatre Is Evil might seem scattershot: flashes of wit clash with emotion, sparse arrangements next to thick walls of sound, shallow pop and depths of feeling. But taken in context, Palmer's art is all about messy complexity. At its heart, her work is a celebration like Walt Whitman's Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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