The object of writing a review is often described as an objective experience. The reviewer is supposed to critically examine the material to find design flaws and slip ups that detract from the overall experience of the album. In some genres, such as pop, radio rock, or technical metal to name a few, this approach works fairly well. When reviewing music that is based on being the sum of its elements the objective breakdown approach can make or break an album. So what is the proper way to review an artist that makes her career from emotional impact and live shows that appeal to the subjective interpretation of the listener?
Amanda Palmer got her start as part of the two piece The Dresden Dolls. Her style of quirky "cabaret punk" is definitely technically proficient, but is at its peak when it appeals directly to the listener to empathize. Early songs such as Coin Operated Boy and Backstabber rack up views on YouTube, yet pale in comparison to the songs that made those albums, The duos of Perfect Fit and Slide and Me and the Minibar and Sing on their respective albums. Yet even in the poppier aspects of the less serious songs lay lyrics that betray the face of cheerfulness that the music portrays. In short, it is impossible to enjoy Amanda Palmer's work unless you can make the connection with her as an artist. This was especially present in her solo albums where only a handful of tracks really shone through the disconnected lyrics in songs like Have to Drive, Blake Says, and the virtual entirety of Goes Down Under
The good news is that after a few years of jamming on a ukelele, AFP definitely settles back into the groove she found with The Dresden Dolls by bouncing her work off of a band. The other three musicians in The Grand Theft Orchestra are the perfect foil for AFP's uninhibited songwriting, pulling back when needed and overpowering their charismatic front woman when the song calls for it. The music this time around is a much larger grab bag of genres than was previously present, dabbling in garage rock, 80's pop, grunge, and post-punk in addition to her traditional cabaret styled piano and rocking rhythms.
The album starts off on a apathetic tone with Smile (Pictures or it Didn't Happen) plodding along to a dirge-like stomp. This proves to be the perfect song to open the album as it bear very little resemblance to anything AFP has put out on previous albums, immediately presenting the shift in tone the Grand Theft Orchestra bring to the table. Shortly afterward, the three song batch of prereleased singles show her sliding back toward her typical outrageous tendencies, providing cheerful sounding songs that pack an emotional punch as well. The Killing Type is especially chilling during the last verse (Even more so if you can manage to see it live) because the first lines of it are relations of a real event. The emotion is palpable throughout, and that is the key to this album.
The songwriting is far from perfect, with some songs overstaying their welcome (Smile, Berlin, and Massachusetts Avenue) and yet the album never feels overly long. Some songwriting choices such as the post punk vibe in Grown Man Cry and main riff in Melody Dean are clearly sub par, The former because the pacing is a drag after two high energy tracks, the latter because of its (recognized in the song) similarity to My Sherona. The Grand Theft Interlude is completely unnecessary in the grand scheme of the album and Bottomfeeder is almost seven minutes of the same song idea repeated ad nauseum.
And yet, I can't pick a bad track. The entire time I've been listening to this album, repeat for the last two weeks now, I haven't skipped a single track. There are definite highlight in Trout Heart Replica (which may be the best song she's written since The Perfect Fit or Girl Anachronism), The Bed Song, Lost, and Olly Olly Oxen Free. Despite the flaws this album make me smile in pure joy and come close to tears. And that's where the true strength of this album and the songwriters really shines through. Theatre is Evil
is captivating and moving, at once familiar and alien to longtime fans. Amanda Palmer has never been better or more personal with her music, and this album may very well be her masterpiece.