Album Review: Maria Bamford 20%
There’s an old saw about how comedians wish they could be rock stars and rock stars wish they could be comedians. The professions are two sides of a similar coin, taking a room full of people and connecting with them through art, although rock stars usually have flash and bombast on their side to wow the crowd, while comedians just have their words.
Another major difference between these two kinds of performers is the way they are impacted by time. To put it bluntly, the majority of rockers who broke big with a striking debut get pretty boring (or maybe just blandly professional) by the time their fifth album rolls around. On the other hand, comedians tend to benefit from the additional experience up in front of crowds, and it sharpens their tools, frequently making them much more interesting as they mature.
Why do I bring this up? Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying that it’s an intensely pleasant surprise to discover that Maria Bamford’s brand-new fifth album, 20%, is her best. The previous four were all pretty darn great too, but 20% represents the Lady Dynamite star at her most confident and accessible. She hasn’t gotten rid of the funny voices or toned down her awkwardness (thankfully), but there’s a deftness in the way she weaves through unconventional premises and shockingly personal anecdotes that proves she is a master of the craft of stand-up, on par with big draws like Jim Gaffigan or Maria’s chum, Patton Oswalt.
Maybe newlywed life suits her. A big chunk of the material in 20% touches on Maria’s new marriage and how, at long last, she seems to have found her oddball fit. Maria tells of how many previous suitors blanched at her admissions of mental illness, but her new husband offered to come visit her in the psych ward and shave her beard, if need be. They also enjoy role-playing as their respective mothers, which Maria reproduces as a mini one-person-show.
Full Detroit is the way to go
Alongside getting married, getting older is another theme that recurs throughout the set. In a particularly good bit, Maria is put off when she overhears another woman described as having “really let herself go.” Maria explains that that’s because her plan has always been to “let herself go, hard: full Detroit.”
As one would expect, Maria returns to favorite topics like her folks and her dogs. She delights in describing her parents spending their golden years squabbling over an ugly ceramic bank that Maria painted for her dad at a Color Me Mine. She also describes questionable life lessons received from an elderly man at a dog obedience class for her pampered, overweight pugs.
As on her last album, Ask Me About My New God (which was basically the same material as the Special Special Special she had filmed in her living room), she gets into a chunk near the end about a recent stay in a psych ward after suffering from suicidal thoughts. This time, however, she focuses on a particularly puzzling moment where the admitting doctor looks her up on Youtube to verify she’s not delusional when she says that she’s a comedian. “It’s not like I said I was Richard Pryor,” is her response.
Fans of Maria Bamford’s stand-up will really enjoy 20%, and though she hedges her bets and offers a disclaimer at the beginning of her set that uninitiated folks are allowed to bail if they don’t like her comedy, I think this excellent album will earn Maria plenty of new fans too.
20% is available for audio download and streaming now.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.