The third disc of most editions of An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer closes with “Ukulele Anthem,” Palmer yelling tuneful bullet points on how much the world might benefit from more time and people dedicated to playing the shrunk-down guitar. It’s a theorem sadly not proven by the three hours of performance leading up to it. Recorded live throughout 2012, the duo’s touring showcase traveled down thematic paths quite familiar to their rabid fans, but which surely must have seemed to outsiders relentlessly macabre and, well, kind of joyless.
Gaiman and Palmer’s marriage at the start of the decade turned them into one of those Painfully Creative Couples of which you wish you were a part—think Laurie Anderson/Lou Reed, maybe David Bowie/Iman. They’re successful, pretty easy on the eyes, and in love, but let’s not forget: NERRRRRDDDDSSSS! Palmer’s background hinges on campy goth and musical theater, while Gaiman is a sci-fi/fantasy geek’s wet dream (The Sandman, Coraline, American Gods, even Doctor Who scripts). Fiercely talented, the pair represent a happy ending for every high school outcast clique ever.
Each An Evening with performer gets a disc pretty much to themselves, while a third features them onstage together. Gaiman’s material is mostly spoken-word and mostly unheard prior to these shows. There’s poetry on love, death and other catastrophes; yarns spun about murder, lost memories and obsession; accounts of his odd bachelor party and attending the Academy Awards. Gaiman’s on record as claiming he has not a whit of musical voice, so hearing him then join his wife not just in back-and-forth narratives but on actual songs is brave both on their part and on ours. The results are predictably oddball and lo-fi, working best on the modern-day torch song “I Google You.”
That means Gaiman’s performances by default are the biggest discoveries here. Now look, we love ourselves some Amanda Palmer ’round these parts. On paper it must have seemed exciting to work with a new love in front of one of the most dedicated and well-connected fanbases on the planet. But Palmer, as captured here, seems haunted and fragile, murky instead of deep. She’s all breathy emphasis and topical misery. She visits material from Death Cab for Cutie, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Cabaret, while “Judy Blume” is as much an encapsulation of the album’s tone as it is an emotionally on-target highlight.
The album has touching and funny moments, but it—especially Palmer—doesn’t seem like much actual fun. Maybe it’s the soft, spare ukulele stuff that’s dragging her theatrical piano rock down? Whatever it is, girlfriend needs to hit up Brian Viglione and rock the fuck out of some new Dresden Dolls sessions. She also may want to reconsider how she performs with her husband in the future, as she too speaks and sings here about love, death and lost memories, with excursions into music industry politics using so many quickly spiraling lyrics here, there, everywhere. An Evening with feels so insular, so ultimately tortured, that it actively discourages new and curious listeners.