When Amanda Palmer raised an all-time record $1.2 million on Kickstarter earlier this year for her new record, no one really said anything about the fact that this could have easily derailed her career. Let’s put it this way: when fans give you over a million bucks to make a record, it damn well better be worth the money. If you give anything less than your best, or if your record doesn’t measure up to your previous work, your credibility will be hopelessly lost. It’s a balancing act on a precipice, to say the least.
Thankfully, Theater Is Evil, the resulting work by Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, definitely lives up to the expectations. Palmer used the money well, and came up with what may end up being the defining album of her career.
With a reputation as a pioneer of the subgenre commonly called “cabaret punk,” Palmer veers more away from punk and more toward pop on this record, but is no less theatrical in her approach (making the title Theater Is Evil all the more ironic). The 15-track album is predictably grandiose in scale, with a forward progression from track to track that makes it beneficial to keep the randomizer turned off when playing it.
But paradoxically, within the looming largeness of this album, the lyrical content is almost uncomfortably intimate at times. Palmer shows herself to be a profound and unflinching truth-teller in her songs, vulnerable, yet unafraid to take her audience into the darkest places with her. From the self-revealing moments in “Do It With a Rockstar” (“All the practice in the world / Won’t get me good at loneliness-less”) to visceral commentary on insincerity in “Grown Man Cry” (“I’m scanning through the stations as the men declare their feelings / But it doesn’t feel like feelings, it feels like they’re pretending / It’s like they just want blow jobs, and they know these songs will get them”), Amanda Palmer is at her best when she is telling it like it is.
Surprisingly, the “biggest” moments on Theater is Evil are the sparsest ones—the times when Palmer quiets down the “orchestra” to sing alone in the spotlight, so to speak. The two absolute must-listens are two of the quietest tracks. “Trout Heart Replica” tells a cryptic story of pain (“And when the wizard gets to me, I’m asking for a smaller heart”), while “The Bed Song,” a story of growing alienation between lovers, is perfectly beautiful and devastating. It’s almost as if Palmer uses the rest of this album to create a huge backdrop as a contrast for these powerful, quiet, poignant moments. Extremely effective.
Amanda Palmer is no stranger to controversy (recent examples include her voluntarily replacing Erykah Badu and sister in the NSFW Flaming Lips video, and her call for bandmates to play her live shows for free, claiming she doesn’t have the money to pay them—sheesh, was the record THAT expensive?). She’s known for being both explicit and excessive, and thus is not for all audiences; but the artistry behind this record is undeniable and commands respect. Theater Is Evil might not be a chart topper, but history will likely record it as a standout classic, and a pinnacle in Palmer’s career.