In the fray of the controversy surrounding Amanda Palmer asking musicians to play for free, and then subsequently deciding to pay them, she pleaded a simple sentiment: “Do me a favor…keep talking about the music.” What might be most hurtful for her then (beside the threats and insults being thrown at her and those associated with her from “the trolls”) is that no one really has been talking about that music. 2012 may well look back on Amanda Palmer and note her achievements (raising nearly $1.2 million from her Kickstarter) and her online tiffs with musical veterans (Steve Albini), all while gliding over the fact that Palmer also released an album called Theatre Is Evil.
And what’s most surprising about all this album overlooking is that Theatre Is Evil is a big album with a grand scale and an even grander sound — when it’s playing, it’s hard to ignore. This, of course, is no surprise in itself: Palmer has always been a self-confessed “performance artist,” and everything she does is noted for its huge, spontaneous nature, whether that be offering up the chance to play in people’s living rooms, or raising $19,000 through Twitter. Despite what Palmer-enthusiasts might expect, Theatre Is Evil can still knock you off your feet. On the first track “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)” she releases a purge of warm, fuzzy noise that swells during each of the verses. During the song’s final leg she pleads through the haze, “I don’t want to die!” and it sounds like’s she’s begging for mercy in this world of instant Instagram hits while having an out-of-body experience. Call it music, call it theatre, call it whatever; it’s bloody effective.
With such a big palette, Palmer tries out plenty: “Want It Back” surrounds its chirpy centre with washes of ‘80s synths; “Grown Man Cry” is a darkly charming ode to The Cure’s Disintegration years; “Bottomfeeder” executes some tropical guitar streaks; “Trout Heart Replica” is a swirling orchestrated number, while “Berlin” might the closest thing we get to a biographical Amanda Palmer musical (for now), with staccato stabs of enthusiasm that strangely recall Kaizers Orchestra’s “Dieter Meyers Inst.” Elsewhere she has the brass behind her, such as on “Massachusetts Avenue” and “Melody Dean,” which not only helps beef up the overall fanfare, but also adds to the joyous triumphant feeling Palmer seems to want to channel.
If she’s not trying out new sounds or building upon her alternative self-confessional style, then she’s relying solely on the power of big pop/rock guitars, bass, and drums (i.e. The Grand Theft Orchestra). This is where fans and listeners might squint their eyes, as, on paper at least, it sounds like a cumbersome matching of styles. But compared to her Dresden Dolls days of Brechtian punk-cabaret, this new setting can still deliver the same kind of punch, if not a bigger one. While tracks like “Do It With A Rockstar,” “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” and the aforementioned “Melody Dean,” use the full-band sound to create likeable pop songs on a grand scale, it’s tracks like “The Killing Type” that take the wind out of you. At first it seems relatively normal (whatever “normal” means in Amanda Palmer’s world) with simple chord progressions, some more lightly ticking ‘80s synths, and a typical Palmer-esque sentiment sung in falsetto (“I’m not the killing type/ I’m not, I’m not”), but when the chorus hits it feels like a battering ram against your head and heart. As one of the album’s lead singles, it seemed to shout a simple message behind its lyrical content, that being that Palmer isn’t fucking around here.
And she isn’t. One of the words I’ve kept repeating here is “big,” and this is a big record: thirteen of the fifteen tracks all exceed four minutes, all adding up to over seventy minutes of material. Palmer pondered cutting the album down to an economic forty-five minutes, making a snappy enthusiastic record that would probably please more people. But then she put her Amanda Fucking Palmer Performance Artist glasses back on: “…I thought, ‘I’m finally in control of my fate, these are the songs, this is the record, fuck it.’” Theatre Is Evil is somewhat overwhelming, but that’s kind of the point — both lyrically and conceptually. This is the Amanda Palmer record which would appear to have the world behind it and for her to churn out a nice little collection of piano-led ditties would have been acceptable, but it would also have been disappointing. Thus, Theatre Is Evil is a kind of perfect flag to put in the ground; she’s claiming her patch of land and she’ll fight to the death if need be.
Theatre Is Evil isn’t perfect, however. The light guitar chug present on most tracks here becomes a little grating, and for some it might contribute to a feeling that you’re being led by your hand through one of Foster The People’s sunnier moments (see “Melody Dean,” “Lost,” and “Massachusetts Avenue”). The scale is appropriately grand, as said, but I’m left yearning for more moments where the proceedings are scaled down, so, at the very least, some more nuance can shine through.
As much as I stand by my sentiment of imperfection, though, it is to be expected. Palmer seems to have become a sort of rallying ringleader for the weird, the strange, and the odd, celebrating everyone’s differences and admiring anyone’s attempt at art (“Stop pretending art is hard,” goes one of her most exalted sentiments). “Play your favourite cover song/ Even if the words are wrong/ And even if your grades are bad/ It doesn’t mean you’re failing,” she proclaims on her likeable and humorous B-side “Ukulele Anthem”. Thus there may well be a conflict at play on Theatre Is Evil: Palmer has tried to make what appears to be a perfect album, but her DIY-style seems to be getting shadowed for the most part with big sounds and bright production. Before imperfection was a charming result of dedicated effort, whereas now it sounds like the consequence of simply trying to achieve perfection.
Nonetheless, pointing out any problems about lavishness and extravagance feels a little superfluous; complaining about the grandiosity of Theatre Is Evil is like getting on a roller-coaster and complaining about it going too fast. The album is all about big and big is what you get. Even the most stripped down moment — “The Bed Song” — is suitably grand: if not musically (channelling both Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi rather beautifully), then definitely lyrically (describing the life of a couple through to death through their beds, which get bigger and bigger as they grow more and more apart). Even when it’s a little hard to pinpoint what she’s referring to (the wishy-washy, bobbing of “Bottomfeeder,” the overwhelming feeling she’s trying to capture and put into words on “Trout Heart Replica”) she still sounds like she’s aiming for — if not hitting — the jugular. It’s only to be expected that such a big album strikes the big chords.