Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – “Theatre is Evil”
A review and general ramblings about my history with Palmer.
Like the majority of fans, I first came across Amanda Palmer when she was with Dresden Dolls. I was about seventeen and had befriended a girl on a music festival forum and met up with her at the festival in 2006. It was nothing seedy, I’m still in touch with her now and do my best to see her when we are both at the festival in the same year. One year on the forum somebody organised a mixtape swap and I was paired up with this girl.
I have no idea what was on my CD that I sent to her, probably tracks by bands that were ‘cool’ at the time, so I could impress her, plus a few of the weird little indie bands that I used to support continuously despite the fact they were pretty awful. There was this one band I loved, the man would badly play a guitar while the woman banged a toy keyboard and screamed over the top about Sherlock Holmes. I bought their album and t-shirt and dragged my friends to their concerts, then I was shocked when the local HMV did not stock their album, and I demanded they order it in. It was at one of their gigs that I first saw an instrument that I have always dreamed of, but I’ll come to that later.
I can’t remember what embarrassing stuff was on my CD, but on her CD was a track called ‘Gravity’ by Dresden Dolls. I had listened to the CD a couple of times and most of it was far too cool for me, but the Dresden Dolls track really caught my attention. This may have been because it only featured piano and drums with some mad banshee singing, talking, whispering then screaming I THINK WE’VE LOST HIM!
In the age where I was penniless and discovering independent music, I downloaded all of their albums, their B-sides and rarities album and then finally Amanda Palmer’s fantastic debut solo album. I tried to get some friend into this music and they did really take to the mildly offensive ‘Oasis’ video, with its rape-LOL and coat hanger abortion scene, but they didn’t want to adventure any further into Palmer’s disturbing mind.
A bit more time passed, I went to live in Spain for a year and had an Australian flatmate who loved Palmer and the B-52’s and many of my favourite acts but it was at last nice to find another fan. Palmer seems to have acquired a very strong Australian fanbase, touring there extensively and releasing an album of dodgy live recordings, ‘Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under’, solely aimed at Australians and including the disturbing ode to pubic hair, ‘Map of Tasmania’. This wasn’t the follow up album I had been hoping for and I didn’t understand many of the references; of course, I could grasp that a lady’s garden looks like the outline of Tasmania but I could hardly sing along to an old Vegemite advert like the audience in the recording.
Eventually, with a huge amount of money raised through a Kickstarter campaign, Palmer funded a new album and allowed me to purchase it through her website for the princely sum of one dollar. I’m not sure how much that is in GBP these days and I haven’t checked my bank statement since then, in case she took £100, but this presumably low cost was much appreciated as I am ‘between jobs’ and Palmer must be loaded. I listened to the album a few times and it didn’t really click with me until this week, when I was in the car for a mammoth journey and was able to listen to all nineteen tracks in one go, in the dark. It started to make sense after this.
Every album of Amanda Palmer’s has some tracks that are excellent and some that I would skip or never listen to until the end and there is nothing new with Theatre is Evil. With its nineteen tracks, including some bonus tracks I received because I paid as much as a US dollar, it is long enough to cut down into your own album, which I will probably do in the end. I intended to do a track-by-track review but that would take far too long, so I’ll pick out a few highlights.
One of the first tracks I heard, ‘Do It With a Rockstar’ , which was a free download before the album was released, really hit me hard and made me reassess my social life. I kind of wish I had heard it before I went to university. Especially so, the lyric:
“Do you wanna go back home, check your messages and charge your phone? Are you really sure you want to go when you can do it with a rock star?”
After hearing that, I acknowledged that I am often one of the first to leave things and too eager to get to bed, which results in me missing out on something far better. I have been aware of this since I was about four and I was at a fair with my family. My great-grandmother bought us all some banana-shaped sweets, which she said we could have when we got home, so I went home early just so I could eat the sweets. During the time I was at home eating sweets I was going to get anyway, my siblings were having loads of fun on, possibly monkey-themed rides. I’m not sure if the rides were monkey related, I might just be associating them with the banana sweets… but the point is that I ended up regretting missing out on something far superior because I was keen to go home. I don’t suppose Palmer intended on bringing up these repressed memories but she will probably put some money towards my counselling because she’s a good sort.
From reading fan reactions, one of the most popular tracks on the album is ‘The Bed Song’, with Palmer just singing and tinkling her piano keys. It follows the lives of a couple by documenting each of their sleeping locations from sleeping bag, to mattress on the floor of a hovel, to big bed and finally to the grave. One partner knows that something is wrong with the other but is too afraid to ask, whereas the other is too afraid to say anything and is instead waiting for the other to ask. It’s pretty bleak; they carry on this way until both are dead and side by side buried under a cherry tree, never knowing what the problem was. She sings, “I would have told you if you’d only asked me”, which will surely make you want to be a bit more open with people before you go and die, or at least man up and ask someone what is wrong. The singing in the verses of this track sounds quite jolly, while the lyrics contrast this, making for quite an uncomfortable listen.
Before you go and drown yourself in the bath, there are more jolly songs on the album such as ‘Lost’, not about confused polar bears on a Pacific island, but more so about losing things and people and them passing on. There are some nice lyrics here, which would lend nicely to tattoos for any obsessive fans, particularly,
“Nothing’s ever lost forever / it’s just caught inside the cushions of your couch / and when you find it you’ll have such a nice surprise”. A motto for life.
Other good upbeat moments are ‘Want it Back’, ‘Massachusetts Avenue’ and ‘Melody Dean’, if you fancy a toe-tapper without so much emotional involvement. Of course like most other Amanda Palmer records, around the end, in this case ‘Berlin’, that is very long and starts off really slow and boring before finally kicking off for the last minute or so, but I wouldn’t usually get that far unless I were for some reason unable to skip back to the start. For others that follow this pattern see: ‘Truce’, ‘Sing’, ‘Boston’, ‘Slide’.
So in summary, there’s enough here for everybody and it’s a case of picking and choosing which tracks would make your definitive track listing. For me I would go:
Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)
Do it With a Rockstar
Want it Back
Grown Man Cry
The Bed song
The Killing Type.
Oh, that seems to be the majority of the main tracks anyway, which is a nice sign. It’s definitely worth spending a US dollar, although you are given the option to spend more, if you’re made of money. You can also download it for free if you’re in completely dire straits, but you won’t get the bonus tracks. A final note: Of these bonus tracks, I would also recommend ‘Ukulele Anthem’, and I think this one can be downloaded for free from Palmer’s site anyway. That instrument I mentioned earlier was an electric ukulele and looked like a wooden spoon with strings. I have been intrigued by the uke since then, and Palmer and Patrick Wolf made me ask for one for Christmas one year, but I never got around to playing it until I heard Ukulele Anthem a year or two later. It really is as easy as Amanda makes out. Give it a go.