Amanda Palmer made a name for herself as one-half of
punk-cabaret act The Dresden Dolls, but never have her songwriting and vocal
talents been put to better use than on her debut solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. Produced by
Ben Folds and recorded in his Nashville-based studio, the album features lush
instrumentation and a wonderfully eclectic slate of guest artists.
Palmer has always been an unapologetically personal
songwriter (she penned a Dresden Dolls tune called “First Orgasm”), and this
album continues in that vein with songs exploring rape (“Oasis”), dysfunctional
families (“Runs in the Family”), broken relationships (“Astronaut”) and loss
(“Have to Drive.”) While much of Palmer’s music written for the Dresden Dolls
has a certain theatrical element to it (befitting a band whose live shows are
reminiscent of a wacky burlesque event), Who
Killed Amanda Palmer unveils a vulnerable, very human side of the
“Blake Says” is a melancholy, lullaby-esque tune about a
cruel man who keeps those who care for him at arm’s length. A slowly building piano line and
haunting strings illustrate the depths of her lover’s frigidity, which she compares to
the frigid plains of Alaska. Elsewhere, “Ampersand” finds Palmer in an unfulfilling relationship, frustrated by the
uncertainty that clouds the future. “I ain’t gonna die for you / I ain’t no
Juliet” she sings, and vows not to live her life on one side of an ampersand.
Palmer's selection of guest artists,
including Folds, avant cellist Zoe Keating, Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray, is truly inspired.
Stand-out collaborations include St. Vincent’s Annie Clark,
showcasing her lilting soprano on the masterfully understated “What’s the Use
of Wond’rin?” and The Born Again Horny Men of Edinburgh’s stellar horn section in “Leeds United,” one of the album’s highlights.
Perhaps the most significant criticism of this work as a
whole is the creeping sense of sameness that develops as the record plays through. Several
songs continue to bleed together in one’s memory, even after several listens,
and others, like “Strength through Music,” simply don’t tread any new ground for Palmer.
Overall, the album is an honest, and at times heartbreaking,
exploration of life’s struggles and losses. Closer “Another Year: A
Short History of Almost Something” picks up nearly a year after Palmer’s lover has
gone. Amidst a sonic landscape of lilting piano chords and an aching violin, she reflects on all of
the pain he has caused her, and yet, she cannot bring herself to let him go, insisting “I
think I’ll wait another year.” If Palmer has more of these songs up her sleeve, that year won't be too long to wait.