“Theatre is Evil” – Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

4 stars (out of 5)

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Product DetailsThis partly fan-funded (to the tune of a cool million), long-awaited album bravely opens with a difficult, multi-layered six and a half minute song called “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)”. Pounding drums, thumping keyboards, distorted vocals about a nightmare and Californian dystopia which end with a repeated refrain of “I don’t want to die”. Amanda Palmer doesn’t want to gently lead us into “Theatre Is Evil”, her first album since 2008’s introspective “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” and her first with her 3-piece band, Grand Theft Orchestra. This is an unwieldy, boisterous, brutal collection of songs, massively so and listening to it is akin to standing on the top of a massive tower block in a gale force storm terrified that any moment you may be blown over the edge; completely exhilarating but more nerve-shredding the longer you stay.

The first third of “Theatre is Evil” solidly continues with these musical themes; the full, dense live sound of the new band (the stage will undoubtedly become this album’s natural home), maybe peaking with the decidedly new wave pop of the first single “Want It Back”. It’s possibly a little samey, it gets hard to tell these songs apart at one point, but it’s also very good. Palmer’s vocal delivery is at her confident best, right up in your face and if you liked the leery singalong of “Leeds United”, one of the few humorous, upbeat pop rock songs from Palmer’s previous ballad-heavy album, then you’re going to be happy with the predominant sonic tone of this album. The downbeat “Grown Man Cry” breaks up the bluster a bit and is a first person commentary on a broken relationship, Palmer’s speciality without a doubt, and a comment on a certain type of masculinity. A very skilled lyricist, ‘we were standing on the corner and you’re throwing down the gauntlet and it’s not a life decision, we just need to pick a restaurant’ for example demonstrates Palmer’s ability to focus on a mundane day to day event or detail and in doing so reinforce its power in the fact that it becomes so relatable.

Massachusetts Avenue” (great keyboard riff and lyrics about geographical ex-lover paranoia) and “Lost” pick up the belting, raucous rocking again with a highlight being the “My Sharona”-referencing lesbian lust of “Melody Dean” where, in places, Palmer’s vocal tics sound so like Lene Lovich on “Say When” you know that it’s another nod from her eighties-loving musical past and influences of which there are many scattered around. There are actually some interesting comparisons that could be made to Amanda Palmer’s choices here and those of Lady Gaga on her commercially huge “Born This Way” album; certainly Gaga has spoken often about similar influences for that album, about being a woman in the music industry who insists she is true to who she is and what she wants to create. Hmmm. This, however, is a different conversation for another day.

Bottom Feeder” provides an interesting deviation to this predominant, punk rock template (and oddly the second to use fish metaphors; see also the disturbing, seven minute plus gothic ballad “Trout Heart Replica”); a lovely, gentling plucking melody with Palmer in rare soft focus and an opposing lyrical darkness that is a staple of Palmer’s songwriting themes going back to the punk cabaret of The Dresden Dolls. “The Bed Song”, one of only 2 real ballads on this collection, keeps a piano-only waltz time and is so affecting and desolate and tender that you best be in strong place emotionally before you listen especially to the crushing final verse, or ‘exhibit’ as it’s referred to here. The final two songs “Berlin”, not surprisingly the most Dresden Doll like song here, and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” (sample lyric, ‘You’re lying in a coffin of clutter, your father and your sister and your drummer are sorting through your Soft Cell tapes’) are blistering, angry performances of such power, passion and sincerity that is as real and genuine as Palmer’s immense talent.

I will confess that I am very slightly disappointed that some of the more complex and beautiful songwriting, as well as some of the subtlety in the actual song presentation (there’s certainly nothing subtle about “Theatre is Evil”), that was so in abundance on “WKAP” is not as so much in evidence here. A quarter of the tracks are over 6 minutes long and there are 15 tracks in total; it’s a big beautiful beast and albums like these reveal their secrets and charms over time and not in the relatively small period of time I’ve had to get to know these songs which I’m sure will cosy up to me in the forthcoming months and work their way into my mind and subconscious forming strange satisfying relationships. Amanda ‘Fucking’ Palmer has finally had the freedom to make the album that she wanted to; no restrictions, no compromises and no excuses and .although not quite the masterpiece it could have been, this record is still a revelation. A massive punch in the head and gut from a fully formed Super Star who will be never be a slave to the industry that she has successfully deconstructed and reassembled on her terms.