A pair of conjoined twins, after a childhood of unspeakable horror and darkness, are sold to a travelling circus. There they perform with a conjoined elephant, write songs, set up a MySpace page and are quickly discovered by sometime Dresden Doll, Amanda Palmer. A match made in heaven, surely?
Possibly – except that the entire story is (but of course) an elaborately conceived project for Palmer and collaborator Jason Webley, complete with a graphic novel illustrating the twins’ backstory. Palmer & Webley have already drawn considerable flak from certain areas of the blogosphere, accusing them of trivialising disability issues, but Evelyn Evelyn is less of a sick joke than it may appear to be at first sight.
This is a concept album in the truest sense of the word, with three spoken word pieces (The Tragic Events Of September Parts I, II and III) telling the dark, macabre tale of the twins. Various tracks back-reference each other and the entire album is designed to be listened to in one sitting – it’s not a record to be dipped in and out of at any particular point.
Putting aside the moral issues of whether it’s OK to pose as a pair of exploited conjoined twins, the music is as eccentric and odd as you’d expect from an artist like Palmer. There’s a desolate cover version of Love Will Tear Us Apart performed entirely on ukulele, pastiches of circus tunes and music hall vaudeville, and even a 1980s-style power ballad. It is, to be frank, utterly insane.
Yet what makes Evelyn Evelyn work rather beautifully is the chemistry between Palmer and Webley. They blend so well that you have no trouble buying into the story that these are actual twins who have literally lived with each other their whole lives. Even song titles that may seem in dubious taste, such as You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister, are shot through with so much affection that it’s impossible to think that Palmer is poking fun at conjoined twins. Even if she is.
And crucially, the music here is rather brilliant. An 11 minute spoken word piece telling a tale of child sexual abuse, bullying and enslavement into a travelling circus may sound like the most horrific thing possible, but it’s actually a gripping listen. Its darkness is thankfully balanced by lighter pieces such as the music hall parody of Have You Seen My Sister and Elephant Elephant. There’s also moments that are nigh on indescribable, such as Chicken Man, which basically involves the duo bellowing the song title repeatedly and doing chicken impersonations over an accordian-fuelled melody that sounds like something from Danny Elfman‘s nightmares.
Although this may sound like a novelty record, nothing could be further from the truth. Fans will find themselves pouring over the story for hidden meanings (Is it significant that the twins’ beloved elephant died on 11 September 2001? Is the title track’s resemblance to Palmer’s own track Ampersand just a coincidence?) and songs such as Sandy Fishnets are unbearably poignant and touching.
The only slight mis-step is the ’80s power ballad parody of MySpace; lyrically, it brings up interesting concepts of battling loneliness on the internet while being a conjoined twin, but the synth heavy sound renders it oddly out of step with the rest of the album. It does feature a cast of guest stars though, including Gerald Way, Tegan & Sara and, on her recording debut, none other than Frances Bean Cobain. The fact that you can hardly hear the guest vocals, is neither here nor there…
It’s obviously not an album for all tastes, but those already charmed by Palmer and Webley will find a complex, multi-layered, compelling listen that gets better with each play.