I’m sorry to prick such a bubbly artistic conceit so early on in the game, but Evelyn Evelyn rejoice in not being real. This is the latest project from punk-cabaret diva Amanda Palmer, an album which has kicked up a predictable, and, no doubt, gratifying amount of controversy. Your enjoyment of it will ultimately hinge upon how edifying or entertaining you consider the concept of Palmer and co-conspirator Jason Webley playing ‘Evelyn Evelyn’, conjoined twin sisters, whose grim history and eventual redemption is recounted in this musical misery-memoir.
It’s hard to argue for this album on its musical merits. Evelyn Evelyn is a wearily familiar imitation of the Dresden Dolls at their most by-numbers: listlessly insistent piano and vocals that murmur and sigh broken confessions. It’s evocative enough in its drawing on imagery and music from turn-of-the-century music-halls and carnivals, creaky backwoods Americana and the shlocky horror of Todd Browning, but, aside from its retro-curiosity value, it contains little of musical substance. Maybe ‘Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?’ or ‘You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister’ will strike you as halfway amusing parodies of, respectively, rictus-grinned ragtime and maudlin country. Maybe you’ll find some shred of sympathy or wonder in the tripartite ‘The Tragic Events of September’, in which the sisters pick over their story so far in spoken-word that manages the remarkable feat of being harder to listen to for how cloyingly cutesy it is than for the morbid nature of what it describes. Maybe you’ll be charmed by the closing cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, even though it sounds like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain without their comic panache. Or maybe, like the punters played to in ‘A Campaign of Shock and Awe’, you’re just happily, unironically here for the freakshow.
This project would perhaps have been better received had Palmer in particular not spent so much of her career singing – far more convincingly and movingly – from the inside of the socio-cultural cages in which she now gleefully imprisons her protagonists. Palmer and Webley’s decision to play both ringmaster and self-styled circus freak; their thoroughly unexamined ability to step between the powerlessness of the controlled and the privilege of the controller; and their appropriation of objectification for what amounts to a sniggering cabaret turn rather than the deadly-serious lived experience it comprises for others, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Neither of them appears able to sing without smirking, but there’s little sense that their creations are there to be laughed with, rather than at.
The album tackles its chosen themes – disability, exploitation, sexual abuse – with an alarming mixture of the knowing and the mawkish. Its flaws are not that it goes too far in its attempts to épater le bourgeois, or that it pushes any boundaries worth pushing; it’s just self-satisfied and slightly – not even shockingly – distasteful. So in awe of its own edginess that it loses the necessary self-awareness to rein in self-indulgence, this album is as much a study of the vanishing of hipsterdom up its own fundament as it is a critique of performance, modernity or fame. For all the overblown horror and tawdry tragedy detailed in the story of Evelyn Evelyn, the spectacle you’re really rolling up for here is Amanda Palmer jumping the shark.