Album review: Amanda Palmer “There Will Be No Intermission”

“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
+ Anaïs Nin

Amanda Palmer’s latest album “There Will Be No Intermission” comes out on March 8 which coincides, by design, with International Women’s Day.

I’ve had it since February 9 and as I figure out what I want to say about it I can tell you -and I’m not making this up – that I’ve easily listened to the entire album (all 74 minutes) at least 50 times.  Paraphrasing my own comment that I made on Palmer’s Patreon page (I’ve been proud Patron of hers since  2017), I feel spellbound, hypnotized and pretty obsessed with “There Will Be No Intermission.”

I hear the songs in my head even when I’m not listening to it.  That’s the thing about art, sometimes it’s like being struck by lightning and it changes you. Sometimes you’re ready for this and sometimes you’re not and you have to kind of take shelter and hide from its impact. Art can hurt. Art can be traumatic to experience. It can stir shit up for you in a way that you never knew was possible. Art can do a real knife-twisting number on you if you let it.

Such is the case with “There Will Be No Intermission.” It has turned me inside-out. It’s like Amanda Palmer performed open-heart surgery on every emotion I’ve got. “There Will Be No Intermission” has challenged me to contemplate some pretty heavy things in my life. It has made me uncomfortable and caught me off guard. It has made me feel deep sorrow. But, and this is the biggest but I’ve uttered in a long time, “There Will Be No Intermission” has also made my heart grow about 17 sizes bigger. It has filled with me immeasurable joy. It has loosened some things up for me, kind of like a deep tissue massage for the soul. God forgive me for the “Jerry Maguire” reference but TWBNI had me at hello, from the first few strains of the Jherok Bischoff-helmed instrumental track “All The Things” that opens the album. And it kept me enthralled until the final nano-second of the closing track “Death Thing.”

My initial thoughts after the first listening of the record was a combination of “what the fuck did I listen listen to?” and “this is my favorite album of the year without question.”

When the album ended after that first time hearing it, I needed to hang back  for a bit and collect myself, like, say, after a particularly intense therapy session.  When that feeling dissipated enough my next move revealed itself: I needed to listen to the album again (and again, and again and again). And that’s exactly what I’ve done over these past few weeks at home, at work and in the car. Sure I’ve listened to other things as well of course but if too much time passed between listenings I’d feel myself get a little twitchy and would dive back in. I’m still doing that.

As a longtime fan of Palmer’s, I’m well aware that no topic is off limits and there’s rarely a filter. But nothing could have prepared me for “There Will Be No Intermission.” It was, in a sense, like agreeing to a trust fall. Would I be caught by loving hands or dropped on the ground like a bag of old bones, wounded and alone? The answer is of course both. But, like my friend Nina said to me many years ago, if passion brings pain, that is the price of living well.  And for every emotional cut and bruise I endured with these songs, the salve was always Palmer’s sincerity with her lyrics, vocals and playing. Said another way, I was made to feel safe and bathed in light as she led me over and through some dark and formidable terrain. Amanda Palmer has laid herself completely bare (both literally and figuratively as she’s nude on the album cover) with this album. “There Will Be No Intermission” is a no holds-barred manifesto that has eaten me alive and spit me out feeling better – and stronger – than I was before I heard it.

“There Will Be No Intermission” has twenty tracks. Ten of them are gorgeous inter-song instrumentals with the brilliant Jherek Bischoff on double-bass, sub bass synth, cymbals and bass drums. And there’s also, cellos, violins, violas, vibraphone and glockenspiel from a wondrous cast of players. The album opening “All The Things” is delicate and haunting with an air of suspense. It has a calming effect like a cup of chamomile tea. But it’s like you’re feeling your way around the back of the wardrobe and light starts to pour through the cracks and you’re not really sure if you’ll end up in Narnia or the ninth ring of hell.  All of the inter-songs reference other songs on the album. They’re the intricate embroidery that not so much hold the album together but add another layer of grace and beauty to it.

Amanda Palmer
“There Will Be No Intermission” album cover.
Image courtesy of the artist

And then there are the ten songs…

It took me several days to figure out how to talk about them. Then I gave myself a frustration headache because still, after all these years on this planet, I still get “objective” and “subjective” confused no matter how many times I try to get it through my  apparently quite thick skull. Writing 101. And yet here I am.

So I’m going to do the only thing that makes sense:  I’ll tell you how the songs made me feel and will throw in some other relevant info as needed. But before I do that, I’ll also toss it out there that Palmer’s vocals and playing (both ukelele and especially piano) are the best they’ve ever been.

So here’s this:

Aimsel’s Unofficial Field Guide to “There Will Be No Intermission”

“The Ride.” Palmer. Wait. Hold up. Screw the conventional journalistic style of using last name after the first reference. That rings hollow in this context. We cool? OK. Amanda wrote this one in 36 hours after spending several hours reading comments on a Patreon post what were in response to her asking her patrons to tell her what they were afraid of. And, long (and super incredible) story short, a couple of days later she recorded the song in one take and sent a private link to the video that was filmed of her playing it to her Patrons.  I remember being absolutely leveled by it. In fact, I just watched that ten-minute clip again. Yep. Still leveled. And I was leveled again when I saw that the she decided to tackle it again when recording TWBNI.

“The climb to the crest is less frightening with someone to clutch you
But isn’t it nice when we’re all afraid at the same time?”

Amanda uses a roller-coaster metaphor to talk about fear and life and connection and “The Ride” infuses me with hope, especially in this time of an insane White House occupant among other more-than-I-can-bear things going on right now. We’re all alone in this world. Except when we’re not. “The Ride” reminds me of the latter.

“Drowning In the Sound.” Amanda wrote it during a two-day songwriting exercise and she drew some of its inspiration from solicited comments on Patreon. “It wound up being a response to the insanity of internet politics melded with the recent total eclipse and the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and, you know, other stuff,” wrote Amanda on her site about the track. I’ve had my fingers crossed from the moment I heard it that it would end up on the album.  “If you can hear/If you’re around/I’m over here/I’m over here/I’m watching everyone I love/drowning in the sound.” The version on TWBNI is bigger and better which I feel  weird even saying because that original take is so, so good.

“The Thing About Things.” This one first surfaced, at least in a recorded version, in 2015 yet somehow managed to slip through my cracks (and I call myself a fan!).  So it was new to me and although I’ve now gone back and listened to that first version, I fell in love with the TWBNI one. Amanda, playing her ukelele, sings about the complexities of certain possessions, in particular a stolen, lost and then found ring that belonged to her grandfather. “The thing about things is that they can start meaning things nobody actually said/and if you’re not allowed to love people alive then you learn how to love people dead.” This one hit me hard because I cling to certain objects with an irrational sense of nostalgia and have slowly started to loosen my death grip on them. (But don’t anyone mess with the monkey doll named Bosco that my grandfather gave me when I was five). The song is heart-rending and yet  cathartic, a hallmark of my favorite Amanda songs.

 “Judy Blume.” Amanda wrote this one about one her writer heroes, Judy Blume! This one first saw the light of the day last year and the video to it, is well, shit you GOTTA see it so here click here. Judy Blume’s books were most certainly in my childhood wheelhouse but even if you’re not familiar with Blume’s work, the song is a lovely and certainly painfully accurate portrait of being a pre-teen (I can’t bring myself to officially say the word “tween”) and teenage girl.  Amanda’s vocals capture that anguish and her words make several Blume book references. “I don’t remember my friends from gymnastics class/but i remember when Deenie was at the school dance/Buddy feeling her up in the locker room/Margaret bored counting hats in the synagogue.”

“Bigger On The Inside.” I think this one kills me the most of all the songs on this album. This is the cry ugly, uncontrollable tears song. It’s also the first song Amanda ever released on her Patreon, back in 2015 and it featured cellist Zoë Keating.  The song is about a TON of stuff that had been going on in and around Amanda’s life, most of which was extremely difficult. There’s also a live version from 2013. The TWBNI version clocks in at 8 minutes and 29 seconds and it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. “You took my hand when you woke up/I had been crying in the darkness/We all die alone but I am so, so glad/That you are here.”

“Machete.” Amanda originally released “Machete” as a demo in 2016. There’s a compelling backstory on this one that’s worth diving into (as is the case with many of Amanda’s songs) so dive in when you can.  “Machete” is frantic and huge  and Amanda’s vocals  damn near reach caterwaul level as she sings the line toward the end of it “So I took your machete and I sliced off your hand!” Strings come crashing in all around like they’re on acid and it’s goddamn glorious. I can’t wait to hear this one live in Boston next month.

“Voicemail For Jill.” Amanda has written a song about abortion that offers understanding, empathy, compassion, support and solace to any woman who was gone through the experience of having one while also giving the rest of us  women, or for that matter humans, some insight into that private world. The song has a quiet urgency to it. It puts words to the fact that support can be hard (if not impossible) to come by for women who have had abortions . Several women have already shared online how much this song means to them.

“You don’t need to offer the right explanation
You don’t need to beg for redemption or ask for forgiveness
And you don’t need a courtroom inside of your head
Where you’re acting as judge and accused and defendant and witness

There’s a video dropping for “Voicemail For Jill” on album release day (March 8) and I’m going to have a lot to say about that in a separate post so stay tuned for that.

Update: In an unexpected twist of fate, I ended up IN THE VIDEO for “Voicemail for Jill.”
Read all about that experience here.

“A Mother’s Confession.” This is one of the most intimate songs I’ve ever heard from Amanda. Amanda and her husband, writer Neil Gaiman, have a three year old son named Anthony (Ash for short). “A Mother’s Confession” at nearly 11 minutes long is a fiercely honest portrait of parenting fuck-ups including unintentional shoplifting, speeding tickets and accidentally leaving the baby in the car. But it’s not just that. “A Mother’s Confession” also bursts with little moments of human connection and there’s a multi-voiced chorus at the end of the track singing a line that’s repeated throughout the song: “At least the baby didn’t die.” It gives the song just a pinch of levity, enough to make it all the more accessible and real.

“Look Mummy, No Hands” is the only song on the album that Amanda didn’t write. It was written by British actress, singer and comedian Dillie Keane.  Keane is part of the comedy cabaret trio Fascinating Aida and “Look Mummy, No Hands” is on their 1997 album “It, Wit, Don’t Give a Shit Girls.” The song is a melancholy tinged and is about, I suppose, the shifting dynamics between mother and daughter. Palmer has been playing it live for several years and there’s also a version on the 2013 album “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.” I’m pleased as punch that “Look Mummy, No Hands” was recorded for TWBNI because there’s an ache in Amanda’s voice as she’s singing it that gives me chills and has me picturing the song being sung by a woman at a piano in a dingy bar that she thinks is empty. But unknown to the woman, there’s someone in the corner sobbing into their long empty whiskey glass. Is that someone me? Is it you? Is it all of us?

 “Death Thing.” I said that “Bigger on the Inside” kills me more than any other song on “There Will Be No Intermission” but now I’m not so sure because I’m sitting here crying (again) while listening to “Death Thing.”  If  death is a hard topic for you to think about (it’s brutal for me) this song might take your breath away, as it does mine. The song builds and builds upon itself.  I am not going to quote any of the lyrics, my instinct is telling me not to. “Death Thing” closes out “There Will Be No Intermission” because it had to. It was the only one that could. Sometimes we, as humans, are able to hold it all in and keep our emotions at arms length where they can’t do any real damage. There have been several times over the past three weeks that I’ve been able to maintain that distance when listening to “Death Thing.”  But there have been a few times, like tonight, when the song rips my heart wide open, not to destroy it, but rather to hold it close.

Final thoughts…

I don’t know if you’re an Amanda Palmer fan or if you’ve never heard of her. I also don’t know if “There Will Be No Intermission” is going to resonate with you like it has with me. Some of these songs might take you to places you don’t want to go with their unflinching lyrics. But they’re also some of the most provocative, beautiful, honest and empowering songs I’ve ever heard. Do me one favor and promise me this: If this album isn’t your bag, go out there and find one that is. That is my wish for you: To find some music that touches you in the way that this album touches me.

“I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you,” sings Amanda in “The Ride.”

I love that line. I love this album. Go get it.

Ponti out.

“There Will Be No Intermission” album notes:
Produced, mixed and engineered by John Congleton.
Recorded at 54 Sound in Los Angeles
Mixed at Elmwood West
Mastered by Greg Calibi at Sterling Sound in New York
All songs written by Amanda Palmer, published by Eight Foot Music with the exception of “Look Mummy, No Hands,” written by Dillie Keane

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