Despite her reputation as a fiercely independent artist, Amanda Palmer has spent more than half of her recording career, even disregarding her stint in the Dresden Dolls, in collaboration: with Ben Folds and OK Go’s Damian Kulash, with Neil Gaiman, with Jason Webley as Evelyn Evelyn, even with her own father, Jack. “I Can Spin a Rainbow” finds her bouncing ideas off of the Legendary Pink Dots’ Edward Ka-Spel, whose aggressively experimental approach to what a song can entail is so specific and unyielding that the album forces her into new modes.
It’s as out-there as Palmer has ever gotten. For as much as she’s positioned herself as a provocateuse, she’s always been a performer who drags her audience — kicking and screaming, if necessary — to where she wants to take them. Here, she doesn’t really care if she leaves anyone behind. “I Can Spin a Rainbow” isn’t a full-throated Palmer album, where she whips herself into one emotional lather or another. It’s not about feeling deep feelings. It’s about poetry and the void and capital-A Art, and it’s nearly inaccessible practically by design.
Some of that has to do with the arrangements, with Ka-Spel laying out tiny, almost disconnected footholds of electronics that don’t bloop so much as clang, and Palmer’s piano offering a dead-eyed stare in response. The music is spare and fractured, although earbuds turn it counterintuitively lush and intimate as it’s funneled directly into the ear canal. And their voices aren’t deployed as complements to one another; when Palmer gives way to Ka-Spel in “Beyond the Beach,” he picks up her intonation, range, and timbre. In “The Clock at the Back of the Cage,” he’s all whispery English singsong stoicism, a gothic ghost story as Gaiman might tell it if he’d lost his twinkle.
The other songs follow in the same vein, all desiccated nightmare lullabies or ambient carousel music from the grounds of an abandoned carnival. “Shahla’s Missing Page” finds Ka-Spel murmuring “My father always told me/ To keep a glass of pepper/ So I could fight the night men/ So I could sleep forever” like a bedtime prayer of existential horror, while the entity described in “The Jack of Hands” sounds like a nursery-rhyme boogeyman used to scare kids into behaving.
That song is warped, childlike and, almost by default, the most conventional song on a record that’s chilly, unwelcoming, and almost exactly what people who bash Amanda Palmer without ever having heard her think Amanda Palmer sounds like. Every album she’s ever had a hand in is, in one way or another, about creating a community. “I Can Spin a Rainbow” may be the first that goes about it by shutting people out instead of bringing them in.
Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel perform at the Middle East on May 17.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.