Thoughts on Amanda Palmer’s THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION

© 2019 Manuel Baudisch

From its authoritative title to the audacious cover artwork, much about Amanda Palmer’s first full-length album in 7 years (only her third solo record since the Dresden Dolls went on an indefinite hiatus 11 years ago) just screams big theatrics and histrionic crescendos. Which it delivers, mostly, until it doesn‘t.

You see, Amanda Palmer’s never favored subtle restraint over gaudy drama, lest we forget this album’s suitably ironically titled predecessor, THEATRE IS EVIL.

And sure, THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION’s cover artwork is decidedly transgressive: Palmer, encircled by a copper colored dawning sky, triumphantly stands on a wooden bollard, fully nude and wielding a battle sword over her head, exposing herself with utter confidence, both as an artist and a person, to the fullest extent. The artwork suggests monolithic extravagance, but it’s also somewhat of a ruse. 

By and large, THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION is a rather low-key and introspective affair. During most of its lavish 80 minute run time, it’s Amanda Palmer’s very own, very personal character study. Lending very little room for obscure ambiguities, her prosaic songwriting, rawer and more self-involved than ever, covers themes of false starts, lost hopes and uncertain futures with utmost, if not brutal, honesty.

Despite its generous length of 20 tracks, many of which approaching – two actually exceeding – the 10 minute mark,  there’s surprisingly little filler to be found here; even the around one minute short instrumental segue-tracks, or ‘intermissions’, if you will, that accommodate the longer, more fully realized songs, feel purposefully poignant.

Take the first track, “All the Things”: foreboding ambient synths get cut off by a barrage of distorted violins and an array of harps that play at odds with an askewed xylophone, which crescendoes for a moment, until it transitions the track back to its haunting, synth-y ambience. At just just about 1 1/2 minutes, it does a good job setting the stage for where Palmer’s heading thematically.
Its follow-up track, arguably the album’s first ‘real’ song, “The Ride”, builds on this foundation and goes even further: an offbeat piano – not too dissimilar to Palmer’s Dark Carbaret days of yore – fluctuates between allusions of big theatrics and her dour vocals, barrenly dealing with such uplifting subject matters as “suicide”, “homicide” and, well, of course, “genocide”. Uff.

For the most part, the remainder of the album adheres to these thematic characteristics quite sternly: dramatic innuendoes are little more than framing devices for Palmer’s often unapologetically personal observations. When the lyrics deal with defeating experiences in her life – like the time she almost accidentally killed her baby (“A Mother’s Confession”) – the typically exhaustive instrumentation follows suit, leaving enough room for more minimalist arrangements without shying away from big, dramatic outbursts whenever Palmer deems it adequate.

Even when Palmer somewhat drops her world-weariness, offering glimpses of levity – in particular during the aforementioned segues – it tends to be a maliciously sarcastic affair. Still, Such is the case with “Intermission Is Relative”, a dubiously quiet, oddly soothing instrumental interval that bridges a tearjerking, piano driven, cabaret infused carol about a young mother’s recollection of her own mother’s death (“Look Mommy, No Hands”) with yet another song about suicide (“Death Thing”). Fuck you for trying to have fun.

Thing is, it is fun! This is a pop record through and through, and Palmer doesn’t make any qualms about it! Dense, stylish and danceable, THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION fully endorses its audience’s emotional intelligence to bear with it as it confidently tackles the right amount of heady gut punches to spice up its poppy vigor, in vein not too dissimilar to Amanda Palmer’s fellow pop music auteurs, Cat Power and Brandi Carlile.

“Drowning in the Sound”, for example, is an uncompromisingly radio-friendly composition in spite of its stark thematic core: Palmer draws sonic pictures that insinuate contemporary politics, drug addiction and religious cults while musically, the catchy, almost upbeat verses bleed into an energetically pounding chorus with a drum beat so Billboard Top 100-ready, you may not even catch her lamenting the deaths of everyone she’s ever loved.
Think Carly Rae Jepsen by way of Trent Reznor.

Palmer’s willingness to go rock-radio-friendly makes the album’s more cringeworthy moments easier to stomach, too.
A casualty to her hard-hitting, uncensored honesty, some of the album’s more reflective moments would get dangerously close to go adrift into sentimental self-gratification otherwise.
“Judy Blume” is a particularly difficult song in that regard, as Palmer reminisces of her upbringing and friends long gone, the song’s emotional core is the titular child book author to whom Palmer confesses owing so much to for helping shape the person she has become. There is an inherent sweetness to the prose Palmer’s telling here, for sure, but when the lyrics diverge into unironic fangirling over FROM HER TO ETERNITY-era Nick Cave… unflinching honesty or not, she ‘does’ test her audience’s patience.

It’s Palmer’s mid-90s grunge-era vocals that sell the story, though. Palmer may lack self-awareness somewhat, but my god, does she know how to pepper sentimental kitsch with vibrant urgency.
She delivers her strongest vocal performance on the album’s fastest paced – and probably best – track, “Machete”. As the music hurls itself into a hellish carnival of rapidly aggressive strings, Palmer spits and spews ferocious mental images of knives, torture and decapitated bodies. Bewildering as the imagery may be, she does have something to say and demands you to listen.

THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION is an album that’s easy to like. It’s easy to admire, actually; Palmer’s raw honesty is refreshing, especially on an honest-to-god pop record. For an outside listener, though, there’s undoubtedly something quite alienating in her songwriting’s more self-absorbed aspects. Making things even more difficult, … NO INTERMISSION seems constantly at odds with itself, persistently trying to have it both ways: both a deeply reflective, auteur-driven journey into Palmer’s own self-doubts and a highly ambitious pop-record with flourishes of the avant-garde – it never quite hits the mark either way.

Does it matter, though? In the end, Amanda Palmer can look back at a career that prospered for three decades. She doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore – to no one but herself, that is. If nothing else, that’s …NO INTERMISSION’s biggest success: As she rips past wounds wide open, laying bare her biggest anxieties and personal insecurities, THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION, more than anything, really is Palmer’s most private gift to herself. She just takes us along for the ride.

Amanda Palmer
© 2019 Cooking Vinyl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s