No matter how many different genres anyone wants to claim there are, when it comes to pop music everything's starting to sound pretty much the same to me. They should come up a new genre called "safe music for radio" and just get it over with. Sounds sort of like country, sort of like pop, sort of like dance, and nothing like anything really.
However once in a while you get somebody like Amanda Palmer, better known as Amanda "Fucking" Palmer or AFP for short, who genuinely has no respect for conventions, genres or anything else that would make it easy to pigeon hole her into some sort of category. If you were to try and describe her music up until now you could say she's that ukulele strumming, keyboard playing cabaret style singer from The Dresdon Dolls.
Which of course doesn't really tell you anything at all about her. Just some facts. She was also in a production of the musical Cabaret put on by the American Repertory Theatre playing the role of Master of Ceremonies. Whether that makes her a cabaret style singer I don't know, but she does have an amazing voice. It can float between a caress and a battle cry in a second.
She can charm the pants off you one moment and burn paint off a battleship in the next. She soars up the scale like a mezzo soprano at The Met and growls out lyrics like she learned how to sing at the knee of Johnny Rotten. On the couple of solo recordings I've heard up until now the music hasn't been very elaborate as she's been primarily on her own and there's only so much you can do with keyboards and ukulele.
However that's all changed with the release of her new disc, Theatre Is Evil, on her own 8 ft. Records label (funded entirely by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever) September 11 2012, as she's now Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. (A note on the release's title: she chose to go with the British spelling of the word theatre so it's not my Canadian chauvinism changing the spelling)
I think I'm being quite honest when I say I've not heard anything like this disc before. I've only heard an online stream so far, so these are only my first impressions. It felt like listening to the sound track from some wonderfully anarchic musical. Something set in a basement nightclub in Paris during the decadent desperate period just before a war, any war. When everybody is living their lives to the utmost because they don't know what the world has in store for them.
There's something slightly dark and sensual about the music while at the same time the feeling is of an unqualified celebration of being alive. A life being led on a knife's edge might be a little more dangerous but it also lets you know you're alive. Listening to Theatre Is Evil is far more dangerous than the music you normally hear, but it lets you know you're alive.
The album itself is laid out like a performance complete with an opening introduction to the Grand Theft Orchestra and a piece of intermission music at the half way point. Whether you want to get up and stretch your legs, take a pee break or go to the bar and have a cigarette the choice is yours. However it does give you a chance to pause the disc and digest what you've heard before proceeding onto the second half of the show. Believe me you'll be grateful for the break. Musically, emotionally and intellectually this is one of the most intense recordings you'll be listening to this year, or in any number of years to come. For these are multi layered and intricate songs with much more to them than meets the eye or ear.
Track 4, "Do It with a Rockstar", is at first blush an ode to the glam rock gods and goddesses of the early 1970s. You can almost smell the pancake make-up and hair spray. It's easy to visualize everybody wearing thigh high platform boots and metallic suits studded with rhinestones. Its brash, bold and brassy, yet there is an underlying note of something disquieting which comes through in lyrics like this; "And do you wanna go back home?/Check your messages and charge your phone/Oh are you, really sure you wanna go?/When you could do it with a rock star, do it with a rock star?"
From the title you might think the song is about the glamour of "doing it with a rock star". Yet the more you listen the more you hear its about the rock star looking for a little company. "Do you wanna dance?/Do you wanna fight?/Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?/Do you want to see all my cavities?/Talk about the criss in the Middle East?" She sounds desperate for company. The contrast between the lyrics and the flamboyant music makes for an extremely powerful commentary on the nature of fame and stardom. With so much of our media obsessed with fame and celebrity these days it's a relief to see someone saying anything that might make people pause and think about the reality behind the glitter.
I could probably write a couple of paragraphs about each one of the 15 songs on this disc but it would end up reading like a PHD dissertation and bore the shit out of everybody including me. However I can't write about this disc and not talk about "Grown Man Cry" and "The Bed Song". Both songs deal with the dynamics of a relationship between a woman and a man in ways that you'll have never heard in a pop song before.
"Grown Man Cry" stands the whole sensitive guy thing on its head. "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." Every time the woman in the song wants to have a serious conversation about anything, the man uses emotions to avoid the issue.
My favourite lyric in the song though, and the one I think sums up the way guys use "sensitive" to their advantage, is her thoughts while listening to the radio; "I'm scanning through the stations/as the boys declare their feelings/but it doesn't feel like feelings/it feels like they're pretending/it's like they just want blow jobs/and they know these songs will get them". Guys have long used every angle possible to get into a woman's pants or to avoid talking. What better way to do either than by hiding behind "being sensitive".
"The Bed Song" is a different animal again. It traces a couple's relationship from their first bed, a mattress on the floor in what sounds like a squat, to their final resting place lying side by side under a tree. When the youthful romance of the early years has dissipated, their futon on the floor is replaced by an expensive bed and their squat with a luxury condominium, disquiet seeps into their relationship alongside the affluence and comfort.
The woman wonders what the problem is. Lines like "And you said all the money in the world/ wouldn't buy a bed so big and wide/ to guarantee that you won't accidentally touch me in the night", are heart rending in their simplicity and implications. Yet for all the years of their life spent together she never once asks him what's wrong.
It's not until they're both lying under their tombstone she finally asks him what was the matter; "You stretch your arms out and finally face me/ I would have told you if only you'd asked me." On that unhappy note the song ends, trailing off into the sound of alonely and desolate piano.
I think we've all at least known of a relationship which seems to just drift along without either person saying anything of consequence to the other. What Palmer has done is manage to lift the mask and show the awful desperation that lurks beneath the silence. What makes this truly heartbreaking is she shows how easy it is for people to fall into this trap and the awful consequences.
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (described as genius musicians/arrangers/programmers Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff) have created a disc of music unlike anything you're liable to hear anywhere else. While being unique is not necessarily an indication of quality, Theatre Is Evil is one of the most exciting albums of popular music I've heard since the first time I heard The Clash.
It challenges conventions without being inaccessible and actually assumes those listening to it have a working brain. This is not passive entertainment that you put on and forget about or put into random shuffle with hundreds of other tunes. This disc will reach out and grab your attention from its opening notes and not let you go until the final chord drifts off into the ether. From start to finish this is a work of art with every note and nuance carefully crafted and presented. Be prepared to be amazed.
Article first published as Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted September 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.