Originally published on September 20, 2012; revised March 2016
Many visitors to my blog have asked why I stopped doing reviews of new music. After all, the original raison d’être for altrockchick.com was contemporary reviews, and I only did classic reviews to fill the time between interesting new releases. I put a great deal of effort into publicizing that aspect of the blog, and every week for three years I faithfully checked every new release in every relevant genre for exciting new music to present to my readers.
Two things happened that forced me to change direction. The first was my long-standing interest in music history and how music developed over time within the context of human culture. Great music is timeless, and there’s more than enough great music from the past to keep anyone engaged for a lifetime.
The second and more compelling reason was the depressing experience of going weeks, sometimes months, without hearing any new music worth the effort. While letting go of my original vision was hard to do, I arrived at a disturbing conclusion that left me with no other choice.
Most of the music coming out today sucks.
That shouldn’t be too surprising. The big four record companies release 87.9% of the music published today, according to Nielsen. Three of the four are American firms, accounting for 78.2% of the total.
Large corporations are dysfunctional entities designed to maximize profits for shareholders. Ever worked for a large corporation? I have. Dilbert cartoons aren’t funny: they’re accurate descriptions of dysfunctional climates that engage in systematic dehumanization. Why would anyone ever expect them to facilitate the creation of art for art’s sake?
In concert with Apple, Amazon, Spotify and the rest, these firms have turned music into a commodity. Their marketing teams have analyzed the behavior of music consumers and base all their marketing on two fundamental assumptions. The first is that if a consumer buys a certain album, they are likely to buy similar music by similar artists. The second is that today’s music listeners primarily consume music for comfort and prefer listening to the same old shit over and over again. Most of the industry music released today is this “comfort music”—music unlikely to contain anything new, different or threatening. “Comfort music” has the same effect as comfort food: it makes your brain fat, dumb and lazy. The marketers of music like you when your brain is fat, dumb and lazy because then you become predictable, and when you’re predictable, they can produce the same old shit over and over again and sell it to you through established channels.
That leaves 12.1% of the market to the independents, which is the only place you’re going to find anything that breaks the mold. Unfortunately, trying to negotiate your way through the independents is like negotiating your way through a swamp during a new moon. Anybody can produce a record at home and try to sell it on iTunes or through CD Baby, creating a quality control problem of enormous proportions. Indie music critics are notoriously unreliable because the dogmatic lens through which many of them operate causes them to view any independent release as a triumph over oppression, leading to milquetoast reviews slanted towards the positive (unless the critic finds evidence of a sellout to the industry, in which case the artist is skewered). The indies also face serious challenges reaching audiences because they’re not backed by big marketing teams and dollars.
So if you’re a listener—not a consumer—who seeks music that breaks the mold instead of snuggling comfortably inside, you have to dig and dig deep into the indie scene. It’s tricky, though, because a good chunk of the indie scene has been co-opted by the music industry, a situation similar to Major League Baseball’s farm system. You have to find the artists who want to be heard only because they have something to say, not because they’re trying to make it to the show. The quality you’re looking for is fierce independence without being an arrogant dick about one’s fierce independence.
And now you know how I fell in love with Amanda Palmer.
I had a passing familiarity with Amanda Palmer because of her time with the Dresden Dolls, but I hadn’t paid any attention to her first solo release because it came out during a period of colliding life transitions (new city, new home, new partner, new job). Her second go-round, Theatre of Evil, came out a few months into my blogging experience. Back then, I did a year-end “best of” list in a pathetic attempt to generate controversy and interest in the blog, something I sincerely regret. Regrets aside, I rated Theatre of Evil the best album of 2012, and I haven’t changed my opinion in the least. Theatre of Evil remains a fresh and exciting work—theatrical, campy and loaded with compelling stories of life’s agonies and life’s absurdities. It is a work marked by strong compositions, exceptional performances and starkly original lyrics that express the gamut of human emotions, attitudes and neurotic rationalizations.
Amanda Palmer labeled her music “cabaret punk” to head off any music industry attempts to stick her with a label. The “cabaret” part is obvious in the performance style and in the slyly subversive nature of the lyrics. The “punk” part will be problematic if you’re one of those dogmatic punk geeks who believe that only heretics make songs longer than three minutes—of the fifteen tracks on Theatre of Evil, six exceed the five-minute mark. However, if you view the mission of punk as one of cutting through the bullshit you find in self, others and society, you’ll get along just fine with Amanda.
To appreciate the experience, pretend you have entered a dark, smoky cabaret full of characters in gender-bending costumes spewing smoke and seductive laughter as they revel in the fuck-it decadence of a world gone insane.
The album begins, appropriately enough, with an introduction in German and English, then POW! into “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen),” a grand and busy piece that sets a tone of thrilling excess. The soundscape shifts to sparse in the fabulously articulated vocal on “The Killing Type,” and I began to appreciate that Amanda has raised her game a few levels since the days of The Dresden Dolls, as the music intensifies with the increased emotional urgency of the lyrics, shifting in and out of the underlying psychic tension as Amanda confronts the contradiction of a violent/not-violent nature:
I’m not the killing type
I’m not the killing type
I’m not, I’m not
I’m not the killing type, I’m not
But I would kill to make you feel
I’d kill to move your face an inch
I see you staring into space
I wanna stick my fist into your mouth
And twist your Arctic heart
This tiny masterpiece is followed by the energetic “Do It with a Rockstar,” describing an invitation that is not only a seduction but the expression of a desire to share an experience that breaks all the limits:
Do you wanna dance?
Do you wanna fight?
Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?
Do you wanna see all my cavities?
Talk about the crisis in the Middle East?
Do you wanna get really terrified?
Ice caps are all melting, and we’re gonna die
Do you wanna cry?
I can make you cry
Do you wanna hit me, baby, one more time?
The soundscape shifts again to the playfully theatrical “Want It Back,” which opens with an orchestral synth then flips to a jittery piano-driven beat for the verses. The vocal harmonies and counterpoint on this song are to die for, and the main motif sticks in your head for days.
“Grown Men Cry” is another thing altogether, a dramatic monologue where Amanda plays the part of a woman who has expended all her emotional energy attempting to support a failing relationship with the male half and has finally just fucking had it. The brilliance in the song is despite the finality, emotional ghosts still linger in the background:
We are standing on the threshold
Of a decent conversation
When I can hear the door slam
I know the face you’re making
And I really want to talk to you
I really, really wanted to
But once you get your mind made up
There is no getting through to you
For a while it was touching
For a while it was challenging
Before it became typical
And now it really isn’t interesting
To see a grown man cry
To see a grown man cry
Amanda’s command of emotion and tone is truly remarkable here—the first verse sounds like she’s cried out and burned out, but on the lines “And I really want to talk to you/I really, really wanted to” you hear a hint of regret and a wisp of the wish that things could have worked out. In other moments, her frostiness gives you the shivers. As the experience unfolds, she broadens the perspective from an issue with one intensely immature man to the seemingly universal insecurity that bedevils the modern male:
I’m lying on the sofa and the radio is blaring
And I’m scanning through the stations as the boys declare their feelings
But it doesn’t feel like feelings
It feels like they’re pretending
It’s like they just want blowjobs
And they know these songs will get them
“Grown Men Cry” is an intense experience, and Amanda’s performance keeps you on the metaphorical edge of your seat.
The following song, “Trout Heart Replica” suffers somewhat by its juxtaposition to “Grown Men Cry,” and echoes the themes of emotion, killing, and hurting explored in “I’m Not the Killing Type.” Still, the superb piano introduction and the Wizard of Oz-based metaphors keep you glued to your headphones. We then reach “A Grand Theft Intermission,” composed by fellow ukulele fanatic Jherek Bischoff, best described as a Gothic Cabaret number with prominent horns leading the way to a dramatic crescendo.
Part Two opens with “Lost,” where Amanda perfectly captures the tone and phrasing of a woman who feels like a dumb shit for having lost her wallet. Doesn’t sound like much to go on, does it? Wrong! Amanda takes a relatively trivial experience and uses it as permission to delve deeper into the nature of all loss, both insignificant and profound. First, the overreaction to losing a wallet captures both the intense feelings of disorientation with the equally intense desire to say “fuck it”:
I lost my wallet
I lost my wallet
And I’m lost, dear
I swear I had it
I had it on me when we got here
Let’s go to Vegas
Let’s get a karaoke back room
I’ll never find it
I wanna shout into the vacuum
What she wants to shout into the vacuum is the yang to the yin of loss—the finding:
That 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
Nothing’s ever lost forever
It’s just hiding in the recess of your mind
And when you need it
It will come to you at night
At the end of each chorus, Amanda and the band shout out a big “Ho!” that is intensely uplifting. As we move through life’s pattern of lost and found, we eventually face the most difficult losses of all and grapple with how to move forward:
No one’s ever lost forever
When they die they go away
But they will visit you occasionally
Do not be afraid
No one’s ever lost forever
They are caught inside your heart
If you garden them and water them
They make you what you are
“Bottomfeeder” follows, an entertaining internal dialogue that is unfortunately sandwiched between two masterpieces. That second masterpiece is the piano-driven waltz “The Bed Song,” which vividly depicts the lifelong dance of a couple who tragically fail to openly and honestly communicate their desires and needs for intimacy. The story unfolds in a series of “exhibits”—brief pictures of the couple in bed at each major stage of life, from young lovers to working couple to a pair of ossifying human beings waiting out the clock. When the couple had only each other, they made love; as the possessions and responsibilities grew, intimacy became a thing of the past. The woman part of the couple narrates the story, describing the decline of the relationship while never sharing her needs or asking her husband why he no longer seems to want her. The tragic belief that “he should know” continues to drive the theme through old age:
Now we’re both mostly paralyzed
Don’t know how long we’ve been lying here in fear
Too afraid to even feel
I find my glasses and you turn the light out
Roll off on your side
Like you’ve rolled away for years
Holding back those king-size tears
And I still don’t ask you, what is the matter?
Is this a matter of worse or of better?
You take the heart failure
I’ll take the cancer
I’ve long stopped wondering why you don’t answer
“The Bed Song” is a poignant tale of an all-too-common experience: even couples who have been together for years feel awkward discussing intimacy, a situation that leads to neurotic inner dialogue and a terrible feeling of emptiness.
“Massachusetts Avenue” shifts the mood to theatrical, and I’m not quite ready to go there after “The Bed Song.” It does give me enough time to prepare for “Melody Dean,” a rollicking hoot about woman-to-woman attraction that lifts my spirits on multiple levels. I love the rhythmic shifts that mirror the changing moods, Amanda’s ability to express a wide range of emotions and her amazingly articulate rendition of the chorus, where the words fall like an intense rainstorm:
I never met a lady
Quite as pretty as Melody Dean
And even though I know you are
A little bit angry with me
You know that it is you I love
And you I want to get me off
But you can only do that when you’re here
And right now you are not
The triumphant horn passage is a beautiful touch of the absurd theatricality that marks great cabaret.
The album would hardly be complete without the smoky cabaret piece, “Berlin,” a song where I see Amanda’s face in stark white fully lit by a pencil-thin spotlight as the crowd follows her every word and move. “Berlin” should have brought the curtain down on the performance, as it is a perfect album closer to a cabaret punk album. The real closer, “Olly Olly Oxen Free” just doesn’t move my needle.
I read a review on Drowned in Sound that said, “With Theatre Is Evil, Amanda Palmer unambiguously announces herself as a major artist beginning to flex abilities that could, if she wishes, propel her angry, sad, funny, compassionate muse right into the fatty heart of the mainstream.” Oh, fuck, I hope not. I’d prefer to think of Theater Is Evil as something more than a step leading to the sell-out and artistic slide that produces Grammy awards. To me, Theatre is Evil is a precious gift of artistic expression at a time when we can really use the unique perspectives that only great artists can provide.