Review by Ellen Eldridge
A strong well-spoken woman with a curse word for a middle name stands out as a woman I want to love. I’ll admit that I never heard The Dresden Dolls; my first introduction to Amanda Palmer came from her cover of Nirvana’s “Polly,” and my intense curiosity grew out of the discovery that she married Neil Gaiman in 2011. I knew I wanted to love her as I eagerly awaited a chance to hear her sophomore solo release—with The Grand Theft Orchestra—called Theatre Is Evil.
Happily, Palmer creates a metaphorically thematic piece of musical theater quite the opposite of “evil.” She and The Grand Theft Orchestra introduce us, wine us and dine us to a smattering of songs recalling many of the styles that inspired an audience of women and men close in age to the songwriter.
Between the swelling and ultimate feeling of wanting to crumble beneath Palmer’s melodies, songs including “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” create picturesque memories recalling songs on The Cure’s Disintegration.
“The Killing Time,” track two, instantly places the listener back into the 1980s with techno-electronic beats permeating the background. The love affair with Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra builds track by track showing splices of inspiration from many of the musical outlets that colored the experience of someone born mid ‘70s—as Palmer herself was. By the time the strong chorus kicks in with the song title lyrics, the listener feels more compelled to pay attention. If the melody hasn’t hooked the listener by “The Killing Time,” “Do It with a Rockstar” creeps in with swelling music that breaks to allow Palmer’s voice to ring out a cappella for just a line or two. Her range hits its upper regions and starts to prove her a worthy leader, which is furthered by the incredibly catchy rhythms that convince the listener to try to sing along in “Want It Back.”
The vibe remains hopeful and decidedly reminiscent of those ‘80s songs again, but the true beauty of Theatre Is Evil rains down in the songs that capture the essence of the first half of the album, “Grown Man Cry” and “Trout Heart Replica.” The electronic heartbeat pulses time while Palmer’s voice crescendos singing “to see a grown man cry,” and creates such a succinctly serene symphony that anyone who hasn’t given his or her ears and mind over completely needs to start the track over.
“Grown Man Cry” was the first track on the album to really catch my attention and laud over me a sense of pity and hope—without even fully knowing all the lyrics. The idea of the music works as a metaphor to begin to think about the impression of a man strong enough to cry, but the last line that states the narrator has “simply given up on you” indicates the theme may relate more to the idea of a weaker man crying though he is grown. In either case, the circling sounds of piano and Palmer’s lyrics introducing “Trout Heart Replica” instantly scream Tori Amos, but this track starts to pull Theatre Is Evil out of its ‘80s-inspired voice and into a better-rounded piece of musical theater.
Another crucial aspect to acknowledge in reviewing Palmer’s sophomore solo release is that the album is divided into acts where, after the introduction called “Meow Meow Introduces The Grand Theft Orchestra,” tracks two through seven work as Act One concluding after “Trout Heart Replica” with the “Grand Theft Intermission.” The entire album concludes after its fourteenth track, “Berlin,” which is the second song of more than seven minutes. “Grown Man Cry” is the first and only other song to last as long.
Act Two begins after the grunge-inspired “A Grand Theft Intermission,” with “Lost.” A superficial examination of the lyrics show a song about losing a wallet, but the metaphor extends as the music strays wildly from the songs in the first half of the album. “Lost” hits harder and feels much more modern with accentuation on the guitar riffs rather than the keyboards in the earlier songs.
Coursing through Theatre Is Evil a time or two only proves to the listener that he or she needs to delve more deeply into the lyrics, metaphors and musical heartbeats. Anyone who gets a chance should catch Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra on tour.
Catch Amanda Palmer at Variety Playhouse on Saturday, September 15th.