“to all the tightrope walker boys and girls”

Artist: Dresden Dolls

Album: Yes, Virginia

Yes, Virginia was the second of two spectacular albums from Boston’s “punk cabaret” duo of Amanda Palmer (vocals, piano, occasional online nude photos) and Brian Viglione (drums, Joel-Grey-from-Cabaret impressions, occasional online nude photos). Palmer’s vocals are less pitch-accurate than my favorite singers tend to be, but she’s a fave regardless: loud, and impassioned or coy or fiercely sarcastic or despairing or determined, without slurring a syllable. Viglione’s a powerhouse in many textures – the way his smash cymbals on Modern Moonlight steadily take over the song while still seeming subtle, for example – but he’s happy to tick a basic beat while Palmer keeps a prancing percussiveness on her piano (My Alcoholic Friends), or to disappear while she dramatically near-whispers (Delilah).

As a lyricist, Palmer does personality profiles. Some with kind focuses on outsiders, self-perceived losers; some with unkind focuses on winners, the people who enjoy the game of making you admire them (“She’s the kind of girl who gets her slings and arrows from the dumpster/ The kind who tells you she’s bipolar just to make you trust her/ She’s the kind of girl who leaves out condoms on the bedroom dresser/ Just to make you jealous of the men she fucked before you met her”). Or worse, the people who seem to have manipulated themselves: Mrs. O addresses Virginia O’Hanlon, the little girl who received the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” newspaper column, who grew up to be a teacher, and whom Palmer imagines as an ancient neighbor assuring them that the Holocaust must be imaginary because “the world is really all in love”.

She does admire such manipulative skill, mind. She’s frustrated when those she loves use signals ineptly: “You thought that you could change the world by opening your legs/ Well that isn’t very hard; try kicking them instead/ You thought you could change his mind by changing your perfume to the kind his mother wore/ O God, Delilah, why? I never met a more impossible girl”. She’s just as frustrated when the subject is herself. “I’ve been feeling pretty as a picture of a patient on a fresh IV” is a winking line in a winking song (Palmer’s piano keeps the ragtime beat, Viglione provides stylish bursts of punctuation), but First Orgasm is the bleakest masturbation song I know. Even if many in the female audience might find it hard to sympathize with a song complaining about “My first orgasm of the morning”.

If I rate Yes, Virginia rather than debut Dresden Dolls in my 30 Favorite Albums writeup, the differences are small. Yes, Virginia is somewhat more polished, and sells the piano/drums duo format more convincingly as a form of rock band (although I wish they’d included their tour cover version of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, heavier than the original and an exhausting joy to air-drum to). Also, it contains the astonishing lyrical feat Sex Changes, two great rock songs in one. It’s amusing and scans fine if you assume it’s about a dark song about transformative surgery (“sex changes” = adjective, noun), but devastating if you take it as (“sex changes” = event, transitive verb): a warning about how having sex changes [female] you. Made more powerful for combining that passionate warning with the childlike energy, years later, to build the song so trickily just to see if it can be done.

Finally, there’s album-enderĀ Sing: a lumbering anthem, as hard-earned as Madonna’s Express Yourself is glib. “Sing for the bartender, sing for the janitor, sing” : everyone counts, even the people picking up your messes. “Sing for the cameras, sing for the animals, sing”: welcome publicity, but also welcome those who can’t help your public image or even understand words. “Sing for the children shooting the children, sing”: everyone counts, even those who will be the hardest to redeem. “Sing for the people who told you that you couldn’t sing”: self-esteem can be self-defense. You don’t write songs as light on their feet as Mandy Goes to Med School or Shores of California – or put on shows like the Dresden Dolls did – without self-esteem to spare. So apparently her method works.

– Brian Block