Yesterday, Amanda Palmer released her newest album, the full length Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under (with all requisite references and entendres entirely intended) as a digital download on her site. The standard variable price structure applies, but anyone can have it for the low low price of 69 cents (a number that is likely just as deliberate as the title and cover of the album). As such, considering the price, I encourage everyone to buy it. Pretty good deal, all things considered, getting an entire album of twelve songs for less than the price of one song on iTunes. Obviously, those with a particular affinity for Miss Palmer probably already have the thing, as there’s no real reason not to. The question, of course, for the critic in the room (or so I consider myself, lack of credentials and all), is whether it’s any good.
Well, it’s strange, that’s for sure. Those who follow Amanda’s social media networking blitzkrieg on a regular basis should know by now that the genesis for the album itself came from a tour of Australia and New Zealand she departed on in 2009, and the majority of the album consists of down under themed songs, running the gamut from extraordinarily silly to undeniably serious, and everything in between. Add a smattering of covers and collaborations, and you’ve got yourself a new Amanda Palmer record. The content of the original tracks are all over the spectrum, from a wistful desire for escapism (“Australia”) to the weight of expectations (“In My Mind”) to vendettas against breakfast spreads (“Vegemite (The Black Death)”) and personal grooming preferences (“Map of Tasmania”). The Australian songs are nearly all live recordings taken from the original tour; many of the songs were recorded mere hours or days before the performances we hear on the disc.
The one departure from this approach is the lead single “Map of Tasmania,” it of the infamous music video that can only be understood when seen with one’s own eyes. Originally a short, jaunty ukulele tune about that certain part of the female anatomy, it has since been torn apart and reengineered into a dance song from hell, all big beats and distorted refrains. It’s a cute idea, and absolutely as far away from the established Amanda Palmer song stylings as possible, and it’s catchy. It does, however, get a little tedious on repeat listens, and seems to be one of the weaker tracks on the album. What was essentially originally conceived in ukulele form as a stunt was eventually remixed into a dance song as a stunt, and as such doesn’t seem to have the same resonance one is used to from Miss Palmer. It’s a fun little novelty that soon becomes eminently skippable.
The other joke of the album (I’m discounting “We’re Happy Little Vegemites,” which is essentially an extended improvisational comedy bit) is “Vegemite (The Black Death),” a decidedly more successful song than Tasmania, and probably the single funniest thing Palmer has ever released, better even than putting the Double Rainbow to music. It tells the tale of a frustrated lover with a vendetta against the titular substance, which she describes as “that foul death paste.” It’s a classic switcheroo comedy song, beginning as a sweet, tender expression of love and turning on a dime after the opening verse, ripping into Vegemite with such fervor and vitriol that it’s basically the breakfast food incarnation of Hitler. It’s cleverly written, and makes very good use of strategic breaking of the meter in order to go off on some small little rant or something similar. It’s sublime, uproarious, and one of the true highlights of the proceedings.
“In My Mind,” which does not appear to have been recorded with an audience (makes sense, considering it features Dresden Dolls compatriot and greatest living drummer Brian Viglione, who wasn’t exactly in Australia on that tour), and also isn’t at all about Australia, is this incredibly fragile, tender little song about letting life slip away when you’re not paying attention, and ruminating on all the things that could have or should have been done (sample lyric: “And when they put me in the ground/I’ll start pounding the lid/Saying ‘I haven’t finished yet/I still have a tattoo to get/it says ‘I’m living in the moment’”). I think it’s probably the single most impressive vocal performance of Palmer’s career (this or “The Bed Song,” at least); she nails the feel and emotion of the song absolutely perfectly. It’s the best song on the album, and far outweighs the baseline 69 cent price tag by itself.
We’ve also got two major covers, Peter Jeffries’ “On an Unknown Beach” and Nick Cave’s seminal “The Ship Song.” I had never heard the original of “On an Unknown Beach,” but Amanda covered the song at the Tristan Allen record release party in December, so I had heard it before. It’s a gorgeous song with a luscious piano line and this great haunting refrain at the end. Pound for pound, it’s probably the best piano part of the record. As far as “The Ship Song” is concerned, it’s, well, “The Ship Song.” She doesn’t change the piano part or make any daring vocal choices. It’s basically just Amanda Palmer singing “The Ship Song.” Which is fine. When Amanda mentioned on her twitter or blog or what have you that there would be a Nick Cave cover on the record (he’s the Australian cover; Peter Jeffries hails from New Zealand to cover the bases), I assumed it would be “The Ship Song.” It just fits. Isn’t really anything revelatory, and it’s not necessarily better or worse than Cave’s “Ship Song,” except there’s a female singer. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to close the record.
Overall, what we have here is a record with a general identity (songs about or inspired by Australia and New Zealand) but not too much of a song identity. The majority of the songs themselves are strong in a vacuum, well written, well designed, well performed, but the overall experience of Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under as a cohesive album is a little lacking. This is not to say it isn’t a worthy purchase; it definitely is, either for the standard full price a CD goes for these days or for the ultra cheap 69 cents. There’s something different at play here. It feels more like a collection of B-sides than, say, her debut solo record Who Killed Amanda Palmer. It’s fine, and it’s a good listen, but I can’t help but be convinced that Amanda is capable of something more. This seems like a pleasant distraction more than anything.