There’s probably a huge cross section of folks who see Amanda Palmer covering Radiohead and all their toxic buttons are pressed at once. I know I’ve seen a lot of venom directed toward Radiohead in the metal community for some unknown reason, and Amanda Palmer seems to be a magnet for vitriol and anger, whether it’s for her success with Patreon, her vocal stance everything from art and commerce to politics, and even her unconventional but successful marriage to Neil Gaiman. So full disclosure before diving into the album and its intersection with my life: I am a massive fan of Radiohead, and have been a Patreon supporter for Amanda Palmer since its inception, and a fan before then.
Make of that what you will.
At first listen Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele seems like fluff, but like the best stuff both Radiohead and Palmer have released, it’s ultimately deceptive. Stripping the songs to their essence (typically voice, ukulele, and sparse piano) Palmer investigates the corners and crevices of the melody and lyrics to find hidden depths. “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry” seem like obvious covers since they were hits for the band, but Palmer’s trick has always been to find the root of a song and snag it. Her voice, particularly on “High and Dry” is heartbreaking for me, her cracks and breath giving an intimacy to Thom Yorke’s lyrics of misunderstanding and need.
It helps that Palmer is covering a band that has in my mind continuously redefined what constitutes popular music. I can’t think of a band so popular that is equally so committed to doing what they want. And that commitment has been the credo of Palmer since her days making cabaret rock with Brian Viglione as The Dresden Dolls.
(side note: if you ever…EVER have the opportunity to see Amanda and Brian perform, take that opportunity. It’s incredible and visceral and something you’ll hold in your mind for years)
You can mock and take the arm’s length stance of “well she’s obviously capitalizing on another band’s popularity with some cheap affectations” but I can’t help but find that a cheap attempt to affect a distance…listening to the despair and hope that opens “Creep (Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin)” conveys a sense of desperation and sincerity that hurts to acknowledge. This desperation is accentuated in the highlight of the record (for me), the haunting cover of “Exit Music (For a Film)” which hews fairly close to the original but is made new by Palmer’s excellent touch with the piano. It’s percussive, recalling how Thelonious Monk or Earl Hines would attack their instruments. Violins break through as the production seems to almost break apart. It’s a stunning cover of a stunning sound, and it never fails to raise the hairs on my neck.
Ultimately, what Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele does is reveal to me the things I’ve been covering up as much as it exposes difference facets of the music, and the interpreter of the music. I listen to Amanda Palmer and I find myself at different stages in my life: changing jobs and dealing with the uncertainty of a new life, attempting to explain to my wife why it’s so hard to acknowledge I need help, and why even today I can find at 44 solace and understanding between the nylon strings of a cheap ukulele, a set of painted eyebrows, and a voice that has provided understanding, comfort, and empathy by utilizing the words and music of someone who did the same thing for me 15 years before.