As one half of the punk piano cabaret duo Dresden Dolls and as one half of Evelyn Evelyn, Amanda Palmer had a thriving musical career long before she went solo. But solo albums unlocked a new room in the cramped, creative attic of Palmer’s brain. Suddenly her songs and her sound had space to live and grow, to stretch in unimaginable ways — like the kid performing on buckets downtown being handed keys to a recording studio.
With the advent of crowd-sourced fundraising websites like Kickstarter, Palmer has doubled down on her ability to be independently financed and creative. She took to the internet with a simple request to fans: Give me money so I can make art. Her fans did, to the tune of $1.2 million and the title of Most Successful Musical Kickstarter in History. In return, her fans asked for an album they would love. To say that Palmer delivered would be a severe understatement. Theatre is Evil is easily one of the best albums of 2012.
After a short introduction to “The Grand Theft Orchestra” by performance artist Meow Meow, the listener is thrown headfirst into the machine gun drum line of “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)”, an immediate crowd pleaser. The sound is unbelievably big, disorientating almost, a grandiose cacophony that makes the most soaring Coldplay chorus sound like a tinny music box, with a vocals-only final line to the chorus “PICTURES OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!” made for audience participation. “Smile” is easily Palmer’s biggest song ever, and the scale fits her as well as the stripped-down piano ballad “Australia” did on her previous album. The swimming, gorgeous arrangement of “Smile” is like baroque under water, and it foretells the sweeping reinvention of Amanda Fucking Palmer that is Theatre is Evil.
The sonic rush doesn’t slow down a bit once “Smile” comes to a close. Over the course of another hour-plus, Palmer puts together one of the most unique records to come out in recent memory. Cherry-picking the shiniest bits and baubles from each musical era, a pinch of ’80s synths, a dash of Clash-style guitar, and a little Bach organ and faux-military trumpets to taste, Palmer creates a sound genuinely unlike any other, often switching gears multiple times within a song. The sloppy garage-rock blasts of “Do It With a Rockstar” bleed into a driving pop hook which collapses into a bouncy jaunt and echoing vocals before circling back around to garage-rock. It’s so many styles smashed into one song that it becomes its own style. “Want It Back” does the same thing, starting with a heavy synth line that recalls “Forever Young” before dropping into an uptempo piano ditty, layering the synth on top of the piano later in the song to create yet another sonic texture.
Just as the sheer hugeness is beginning to grate, there is “Grown Man Cry”, a break in the wall of sound which Palmer plugs with some of her most devastating lyrics to date, an excoriation of emotional falsity: “And for a while it was touching / It was almost even comforting / Before it became typical / And now it really is not interesting / To see a grown man cry”. Palmer does this again and again, raising the tempo and ramping up the cling and clatter of a full band just to drop into other slow tracks, notably “Bottomfeeder” and “The Bed Song”, a track about making it in life but failing in love where Palmer shrugs off lines like “You take the heart failure / I’ll take the cancer” with devastating casualness.
Palmer’s art has grown both literally and figuratively since her first solo record in 2008. Theatre is Evil boasts horns, strings, sing-along choruses, fierce rock guitars, untamed synths, falsetto vocals, and drums on drums on drums — all instruments and techniques Palmer has used before, but never all at once and never so perfectly balanced, like an ice cream sundae with everything on it in the exact right proportions, the base of which is Palmer’s songwriting. The lyrics tend toward relationships as they always have, but her melodies are intensely pop-oriented and criminally catchy, especially on greats like “Melody Dean”, “Want It Back”, and closer “Olly Olly Oxen Free”. It’s ’80s new wave meets arena-rock, smothered in black glitter and sly winks.
And the fun doesn’t stop when the album ends. There are a plethora of bonus tracks to hunt down: iTunes tracks, Australian release tracks, Kickstarter bonus and Deluxe bonus tracks. All told, there is another album of material to be discovered, including the great “Ukelele Anthem” and a cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” shocking both in its fidelity to the original and in how demonstrably better Palmer is than Del Rey at understanding and executing the emotional arc of a song. Petty online squabbles about payment for crowd-sourced tour musicians aside, no one can accuse of Palmer of wasting donor money or phoning this effort in.
In Theatre Is Evil, Palmer hasn’t just topped her best releases to date. She’s done it with room to spare. Though, if you’ve followed Palmer’s career, this shouldn’t be a surprise. It makes sense. Fans paid for the project, so she’s giving them exactly what they wanted: a truly special album, one that will reach out and grab you by the lapels and shake the life out of, or into, you.