Artist: Owen Pallett
Album: In Conflict
Genre: Chamber Pop
Label: Domino/Secret City
Owen Pallett has been standing on the curved line of fame for years. The 34-year-old Canadian has yet to become a household name, but he’s played a part in the sound of so many who are. As a composer, he’s done arrangements for the mainstreamers (Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, Pet Shop Boys) and the indie big kids (The National, The Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bear). He dawned his best suit for the Oscars after his soundtrack work for Spike Jonze’s Her was nominated, a golden trophy that would have been placed next to his Emmy for composing the T Magazine‘s “Fourteen Actors Acting” and Polaris Prize for 2006’s He Poos Clouds had it won. Despite his mile-long scroll of accomplishments, Pallett has managed to stay a name known almost strictly to those in the industry. In Conflict, however, is the last step needed to put Pallett in the bright light that he deserves.
Pallett’s Final Fantasy moniker, put to rest in 2010 due to copyright infringement, may have kept him from a rapid shot to fame. That same year he dropped his third album, Heartland, a narrative that follows the young, violent farmer Lewis as he confronts God, aka Owen, through a series of one-sided conversations. It’s a highly detailed, jagged, sparkling release that uses woodwinds for more than the usual crescendos and fairy solos. When combined with Pallett’s chamber pop songwriting and mesmerizing violin loops, it transcended creativity to a full-length unlike any released that year.
Now, Pallett has moved from Toronto to Montreal after a 15-year residency there, prompting the first of several life changes that would be cataloged in In Conflict. “You stand in a city you don’t know anymore / Spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before” he sings on “On a Path,” revealing, for the first time in a long time, himself.
If In Conflict is Pallett finally giving us a peek into his character, it’s a very narrow line of vision with several blinks held long enough to keep us from knowing where we’re going. For the first time since Heartland, he’s handing us the words (and in the case of “The Secret Seven,” the numbers to his actual cellphone) with a visceral honesty. The only way to get more personal than putting the lyrics right on the cover is to remove the section blocked out by what appears to be a black cloud.
In Conflict may be less of an adventure than Heartland in its song structure and vocal range, but by smoothing out his vocals and violin, Pallett shows the turmoil is within himself, a struggle dominated by thoughts and decisions instead of God’s next move against a weak peasant. With help from Brian Eno on backing vocals, he questions how depression, gender identity, and determination are viewed in regards to whether or not they’re generally “good” or “bad.” The struggle with these may never reach a finite conclusion that solves their issues – and that may be best. That process keeps your brain churning, and his album does the same.
Pallett has increased his use of synth on the record, be it the dramatic swell in “Song For Five & Six” or the daunting heaviness of “The Riverbed,” where it acts as the invitation to see through his eyes for the first time. Playful gimmicks and springtime motifs are done away with in a decision that’s born with maturity in mind. All the while beautiful arrangements played out by the FILMHarmonic Orchestra Prague add an encompassing, sweet reality, best heard in “On a Path” and the understated “The Passions.”
After listening to the album several times, it’s clear that it feels whole yet guarded, a free flow of thoughts that question our understanding of how to process life without detailing every intimate personal anecdote. Pallett’s hyperawareness and grasp on both the greater picture and minute details are traits consistently found in notable virtuosos. As pianist Glenn Gould said, “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” Almost too neatly, In Conflict fits right in line with Gould’s belief. With subdued grace and a symbolic tang, Pallett has devoted his life to opening up the world’s eyes, and In Conflict is the first time we truly get to see it through his.
Review written by Nina Corcoran (follow her on Twitter)