It’s been a strange old journey for Amanda Palmer, since the release of her debut album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. It’s a journey that’s taken in marriage (to cult author Neil Gaiman), an acrimonious split with her former record company Roadrunner, all manner of side projects (the Evelyn Evelyn curio, the patchy ‘Goes Down Under’ record and the truly odd Radiohead ukulele covers EP) and one of the most successful crowd sourcing projects ever.
It’s the latter which is likely to define Theatre Is Evil in the same way that In Rainbows defined Radiohead as the pioneers of the ‘pay what you want’ model. Since launching her Kickstarter appeal at the end of April, she’s now raised $1.9m, enough to record and distribute the record, tour it and finance an art project. And, after her many run-ins with Roadrunner (the label, which predominately deals with heavy metal acts, asked her to cut her video as they thought she looked fat in it), you can only be happy that she’s now gained her much yearned for creative freedom.
Yet what of the music? Well, firstly, and most pleasingly, Theatre Is Evil feels like a proper album. The material released since Who Killed has felt disjointed and lacking any real flow – here, from the opening brief introductory piece of music, through to an instrumental interlude, Theatre Is Evil has an unshakeable aura of assured self-confidence.
Even better, the tracks collected her are the mind of a true solo artist – as good as Who Killed was, it consisted mainly of songs written during her time with the Dresden Dolls. Theatre Is Evil is her first album written as a solo artist, and while on the surface it may not differ that much (there’s plenty of furiously energetic piano-led songs on here), there are also a wider variety of styles explored.
Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen) sounds absolutely huge, a fuzzy blend of synths, piano and pounding drums that’s so enormous it sounds like it’s about to burst through your speakers at any given moment. Do It With A Rockstar is a typically frantic and piano-pounding, with Palmer sounding incredibly manic one minute, offering to show off her cavities to a lover, before crashing down to earth with the declaration that “all the practice in the world won’t make me good at loneliness”.
There’s also a fair amount of the retro ’80s stylings that have proved so successful for the likes of M83 and Twin Shadow in recent months. Grown Man Cry is impossibly stylish, floating in on synths that sound like they’ve been imported from the Drive soundtrack, while the brilliant Want It Back and The Killing Type both tread similar territory but performed with such verve and passion by Palmer that it’s nearly impossible to drag yourself away from.
Another highlight is the emotional centrepiece of Trout Heart Replica (no relation to the Captain Beefheart), a stark piano ballad that recalls the best of Regina Spektor while the sass and sway of Bottomfeeder is almost impossible not to shuffle along to.
Inevitably, on an album which is 15 tracks long, there’s a bit of filler here that could have been judiciously edited out. The last third of the record flags a bit, with Massachusetts Avenue and Lost overstaying their welcome, but it’s rescued by the pleasing bubblegum pop (and My Sharona referencing) of Melody Dean and, best of all, the beautifully fragile The Bed Song. The latter could be, lyrically at least, Palmer’s finest moment, a devestatingly honest portrait of a breakdown of a relationship, set to an austere piano melody: “And you said: ‘All the money in the world won’t buy a bed so big and wide to guarantee that you won’t accidentally touch me in the night’, then I said: ‘You must be right’”.
Best of all, it’s simply a relief to find Palmer fully focused and concentrating on music again. She remains an acquired taste, and Theatre Is Evil will probably prove to be a somewhat divisive album. The faithful will lap up every eccentric note, of course, but there’s much here for the uninitiated to delight in as well. Worth every cent of that Kickstarter money, at any rate.