Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil (Music Review)

Theatre Is Evil cover

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil

It’s easy to describe the music of Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra: It’s an amalgamation of goth and synth influences from the 1980s and 1990s, combined with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and performed with a theatrical flair. In fact, the album title Theatre Is Evil is as much of a joke as the sugary pink cover: Palmer’s real life is too intertwined with her art to ever separate her from her “theatre”, and her songs are frequently self-aware about that. (“I couldn’t do that, it is wrong/But I can say it in a song,” she explains in one refrain.)

The impact of her songs is much stronger than one would expect from that description, though. The styles may be openly derivative, and actually so varied that I wouldn’t expect the album to fit together coherently, especially since they were written over a period of several years. However, Palmer’s persona is the glue that makes it all work. Everything, from the Siouxsie to the Bowie to “Melody Dean” (which references “Love the One You’re With” over the riff to “My Sharona”) feels to be uniquely Palmer’s style.

With backing from The Grand Theft Orchestra, many songs take on an energetic sound that could fill arenas, but they somehow feel more personal than they ever did in her previous band: the stripped-down, thoroughly theatrical Dresden Dolls. “Want It Back” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” are perfect examples of glammy pop-rock, while “Massachusetts Avenue” has a punk simplicity that approaches punk execution at the shouted crescendo. “Do It With A Rockstar”, possibly the highlight of the album, is a self-loathing pickup song packed with jokes, encapsulating the self-aware theme of “theatre is evil”.

Palmer and her band do slower songs, too. “Trout Heart Replica” is the sort of beautiful poetry that high school goths yearn to write, but it will be years before they have the life experience to examine relationships like “Grown Man Cry” does. “The Bed Song” does away with all the electronics, but its simple piano performance may be the emotional core of the album. And my other favorite song, “Bottomfeeder”, has the angstful but inscrutable lyrics that would have made it a hit on 90s’ radio. Theatre Is Evil has a variety that makes it incredibly satisfying as an album in addition to successes of the individual songs. (The only place the variety disappears is in the atmosphere. Even the fun, upbeat songs are uniformly depressing. “Melody Dean” and “Lost” are the only arguably happy songs. The former is a justification of an affair, and the second is an assurance that lost things can return.)

I wouldn’t expect to call a goth-pop throwback album a masterpiece, but Theatre Is Evil qualifies. My favorite songs are mind-blowing, and my least favorites obviously deserve to be loved by people with different taste. Nothing here is filler, so even those lesser songs feel like part of an experience. And for Palmer’s theater-meets-life attitude, it’s hard to come up with a better compliment than “this music is an experience”.

Grade: A

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