Amanda Palmer Presents Stark Reality Unfiltered and ‘There Will Be No Intermission’
It’s one thing to stage elaborate routines and concoct convoluted song structures, and if done well, it can work well enough. But then, there are performers who exhibit an unmistakable spontaneity — a dynamism and fluidity that can hardly be affected. It’s quite literally as if the music is flowing from hearts and minds in real time, even if the songs are already written. Granted, such vague and obsequious description practically begs for derisive dismissal, but to that charge, one need only listen to Amanda Palmer’s latest work, “There Will Be No Intermission,” to verify its truth. Palmer rose to fame with the “punk cabaret” duo The Dresden Dolls, and has kept busy through the years with a staggering number of diverse collaborative efforts. For her third solo album, she and illustrious producer John Congleton crowdfunded the project through Patreon, which allowed for utterly unrestricted artistic license. Having experienced more than a fair share of loss in her life, Palmer has crafted a set of songs that she has described as “exercises in survival.” The album alternates between full songs and droney classical interludes, which set and build on the moods of the songs, and could in of themselves constitute an impressive album. As for the songs, they’re as full of gothic vim and vigor as imaginable.
While the music itself is not particularly ornate, it’s played with a finesse that is rare in anything outside obscure academic niches. You can hear this in the first full song, “The Ride,” in how Palmer varies her tempo at the piano, keeping the listener on edge throughout, and whimsically drifting into classical passages between verses, over an ominous wheezing background. For her opening number, she’s chosen no less ambitious of a topic than life itself — the titular “ride.” In an apt introduction to the black humor that runs through the album, she sings, “But isn’t it nice when we’re all afraid at the same time?” If this weren’t dark enough, she continues, “Everyone you love is gonna die / Hopefully, this song will come remind you.” In a way, this is rather positive, as it functions as a reminder to appreciate what you have. Or something.
Palmer lingers upon this theme in “Drowning In the Sound,” singing, “I’m watching everyone I love / Drowning in the sound.” She goes through the motions, pausing as she pleases, and building plenty anticipation, sending chills with chromatic ascending lines, and intermittently cutting the music off with an abrasive, guillotine-like sound. This is true horror show fare. Palmer seethes, gasps, groans, and rattles out thought-provoking lyrics like she has to purge herself.
Palmer began playing the ukulele in sets as a bit of a joke, but over time, it became a core part of her routine. She brings it out for “The Thing About Things,” and the sound takes on a whole new character. Something about the minimal, twangy timbre of the instrument complements her deranged howling, creating an exceptionally macabre experience. The word “poet” gets thrown about far too freely, but Palmer deserves the distinction. A song like this needs to be taken as a whole, as no quote could really do justice, but the premise is “The thing about things is they start to turn evil / When you start to forget what they’re for.”
“Judy Blume” is a heartfelt tribute to the eponymous author of children’s and young adults’ fiction. Palmer charmingly recalls specific details from Blume’s books, rattling off lines like “Davey was stirring the tea that she wouldn’t drink.” In an especially touching moment, she recollects, “I started noticing grown-ups would smile and cringe,” and continues, “You taught me that you could say anything you could think.” Without Blume’s encouragement, the young Palmer might have allowed disapproving responses from adults to deter her from fully expressing her mind, and what a loss that would have been for all of us. Fortunately, Palmer has turned out unflinching in her convictions. Consider the song “Bigger On the Inside,” whose title alludes to the TV series “Dr. Who.” In a writeup on Patreon, she explained, “I found myself thinking… are you really, REALLY, going to make a corny Dr. Who reference in a song about death and cancer?” She eventually concluded, “Yeah, sure i fucking am. I can do whatever I want. Suck it, fraud police.” Sure enough, the reference doesn’t devalue the song in the least. Palmer relates the experiences of “friends hooked up to hospital machines,” producing the very sound of anguish, and striking straight to the bone.
“Machete” is an absolute riot, showcasing Palmer at her most spookily feisty. The “punk cabaret” description often leveled at her music never seemed so appropriate. A crazed, decadent outpouring with razor-sharp edges and a very Tim Burton feel, the song commemorates her best friend and “spiritual mentor” Anthony, who passed away from leukemia, and passed on to her his vast collection of knives, with which she can’t figure out what to do. It’s no surprise that as colorful a character as Palmer would have anecdotes like these, and they keep coming, unfiltered and uncompromisingly expressed. On “Voicemail for Jill,” she consoles a friend in distress, pointing out the often arbitrary nature of societal conventions with such observations as “When you have a baby, they throw you a party / And then when you die they get together for a cry.” The song ends with her finally promising, “We’ll throw you the best abortion shower.”
“A Mother’s Confession” relates the crippling anxieties that come with caring for a baby — how with a fragile life in one’s hands, an offhand mishap can spell the end of the world. The emotion in Palmer’s voice, always audible, reaches new peaks, and at moments it sounds like she is actually crying. In a rambling recollection, she reflects on such subjects as the oddness of mundane family visits, and the occasional ambivalence about bringing a child into a world with so many problems, ultimately concluding, “At least the baby didn’t die.” By the song’s end, a chorus of voices have joined her in the refrain, making for a truly haunting experience too fraught with mixed emotions for any fair classification.
“Look Mummy, No Hands” is a flashback to childhood, with the moral of the story being “How careless we are when we’re young.” Palmer and Congleton capture the sensation of being fully absorbed in a memory in a way that is downright chilling. By this point, listener will likely find themselves struggling under the weight that Palmer has mercilessly piled on through the course of the album. Ever the intuitive spirit, she begins her closing track, “Let’s try to end on a pleasant note,” going on to encourage, “You’ve ended endless things and you how it goes.” After a set of songs recounting so much loss, you’d have to admit she has a point when she congratulates herself, “You’ve really got this death thing down.”
There’s no shortage of cheery motivational songs all around for the easily amused. The rest of us, those who cringe at clichés, will find a refreshing alternative in Palmer. Her latest album is an unhindered acknowledgment of stark realities, with no reservations for convention, propriety or boundaries. It’s a celebration of the empathy that stems from our collective plight. Move over Morrissey, there’s a new contender for the pessimistic superlative. That isn’t, by any means, to dismiss this album as any sort of pity party. Rather, it’s inspirational in its brutal honesty, as it demonstrates a level of artistic integrity that is truly rare. Fearless, expressive, immersive, and profoundly touching, “There Will Be No Intermission” is a monumental work.
“There Will Be No Intermission” is available March 8 on Apple Music.