What money can't buy, of course, is the sheer raw talent and the acerbic, perceptive songwriting which elevates Palmer above the sorry sea of wannabe Kate Bushes. In every sense, Theatre Is Evil sounds like a million dollars.
With some exceptions — like opener “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen),” which is like every song on the White Album played at once — the record is the most unvarnished rock music Palmer’s ever created, leaning heavily on ’80s goth and the oddball New Wave of folks like Lene Lovich. But Palmer returns the support to her fanbase tenfold in songs like “The Bed Song” (a wrenching solo-piano waltz chronicling a rotting relationship) and “Massachusetts Avenue,” a celebratory anthem encoded with the notion of misfits achieving victory through fraternity. “You don’t need to be alone at all,” sings Palmer, who knows it more than anyone.
Theatre Is Evil sounds MASSIVE, best exemplified by the opener ‘Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)’, which begins like My Bloody Valentine artificially inseminating Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks in an aircraft hangar and then gets really ambitious, finding ways to crank itself up a notch previously unknown to human science, except possibly that employed by Ultrasound in some of their more apocalyptic moments. ‘The Killing Type’, up next, is to PJ Harvey’s Dry as is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a line drawing of some cherubs. They’re astonishing tracks both.
But it’s with the single ‘Do It With A Rockstar’ that the album finds its métier in a bouncy, widescreen, new-wavey pop-rock that Palmer’s pianocentric Weimar sensibilities ensure is always closer to Sparks than to No Doubt or the also-ran likes of Marina Diamandis. This idiom is explored through the subtly heartbreaking ‘Want It Back’ and revisited throughout the album: today, my favourite example of the form is ‘Melody Dean’ but every example sounds like a single to me, possibly because having been 12 in 1978 gives a boy unreasonably optimistic ideas about what can and cannot be pop music, but possibly because Palmer is congenitally incapable of delivering filler.
With a record this consistent – and like its predecessor so imposingly bookended – it’s probably silly to talk about 'centrepieces'. But it’d be sillier still not to mention the saddest – maybe also the angriest and most compassionate – song of each Act. ‘The Bed Song’ is ‘Ampersand’ reprised as a Christmas Carol-type time-triptych, lyrically and musically snowflake-perfect even by Palmer’s exacting standards. And then there’s ‘Grown Man Cry’, wherein our heroine comes reluctantly to the realisation that a friendship is dead atop a clipped backing of airbrushed mid-Eighties AOR, all diminished chords and chorus pedals. As with everything here, if there’s an element of parody in the form (and this being Palmer it’s hard to imagine there’s not) the music itself is so thrillingly executed that you’re swept along anyway. No ephemeral Album Of The Year, this beastie. Will still be picking up admirers in 30, 40 years’ time. Palmer too, probably, lol etc.