When professional plagiarizers, diminutive boy bands, and the customary crooning mannequins prey on the world of popular music like they do today, a fresh face is certainly a sight for sore eyes – even if it’s the face of a veteran songstress enclosed in pink.
Amanda Palmer is the ideal pop star. With a devout fan-base, boundless charisma and all the talent in the world, Palmer has broken into the mainstream all on her own terms – with a little help from her friends, of course. The Kickstarter campaign that raised over a million dollars just a few months ago has stemmed Theatre is Evil, a record as personal and as essential as anything Amanda Palmer has ever done. It is an album filled to the brim with experimentation, reinvention, and most of all, heart; and that is what makes Palmer’s music so unique and so exhilarating: There is not a moment of insincerity to be found in any of it.
Theatre is Evil is, at heart, Palmer’s musical diary, and it is as dark as it is sweet as it is tender as it is harrowing, and it is so far, without a doubt, the greatest achievement of her label-free, solo career.
The record opens with Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen), and Palmer’s Brian Wilson-esque vocal styling adds humanity to the increasing distortion of the blistering shoe-gaze-inspired opener. Fierce but warm, the track grows deeper and darker as it progresses, and sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The Killing Type delves further into the songstress’ mind and heart. It is angst made pretty, yet the pain in Palmer’s work is as intense on Theatre is Evil as ever. What’s different this time around is that it’s all masterfully coated with layers and layers of sound – layers that drown out the gut-wrenching torment for something more melodious without compromising the overarching darkness of it all.
What becomes evident in the first few minutes of the album, however, is that this is no longer Amanda Palmer, the piano-slaying queen of The Dresden Dolls. This is Amanda Palmer, the self-made pop star, trading in cabaret punk for something more experimental, and certainly, more high-risk. Reinvention is no easy task, but Palmer pulls it off effortlessly with the assistance of her handpicked Grand Theft Orchestra. The band plays each instrument with such richness that nothing gets left out and nobody gets pushed away from the spotlight. It is all still a cabaret, but much brighter, and much vaster than ever before.
Yet it’s still at her most minimal where Palmer shines brightest. Trout Heart Replica and the truly afflicting The Bed Song, which painfully details a rotting relationship, are both high points of the album – and that side of Palmer is still so mesmerizing and so addicting that the songs that follow, Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean, understandably pale in comparison.
Clocking in at seventy-one minutes, Theatre Is Evil is a tightly wrapped record, free of fillers, containing distinctive standout tracks, each essential to the album’s progression. Even the record’s instrumental entr’acte, the Neutral Milk Hotel-esqe A Grand Theft Intermission, is involving and poignant, adding more than just an interlude to an already superb album. The production is excellent too. Grown Man Cry and Berlin are outstanding examples of every layer of each song coming together to make an impeccable, melancholy whole. Palmer sings each song with such urgency that nothing ever seems redundant, and while not quite “cabaret punk,” Theatre Is Evil is certainly all cabaret – a colorful melodrama of words, sounds, and ideas, starring Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra. And meine damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, this is a show you surely don’t want to miss.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.