Owen Pallett

In Conflict

With In Conflict Owen Pallett cements his name as one of a select few contemporary solo artists who reconcile technical ability with a non-purist approach to pop songwriting and arranging. This approach allows the artist to transcend the contrivances of virtuosity – the trappings of the "instrument rock" showcase – and concentrate on what matters most: great songs that neither rely on, nor undermine, the artist’s capabilities as a musician. Instead these artists use their chosen instrument to serve rather than dominate their sound.

In this respect, it would be tempting to compare Pallett’s latest work with that of St Vincent’s Annie Clark. Both are remarkably skilled musicians – Pallett on violin, Clark on guitar – who, having each released their fourth respective solo albums this year, are thus far at the peak of their individual powers. Like Clark, Pallett refuses to let his instrument overshadow his productions, using layered arrangements as a canvas on which to project dozens of other musical ideas, abetted in no small part by a rich network of friends and collaborators. St Vincent’s stiff guitar-funk and stylised performances have seen her compared to the likes of Prince. If we were to make similar crude analogies to eighties pop icons, Pallett might inhabit a space similar to Kate Bush: sweeping orchestral arrangements, lyrical matter that vacillates between the arcane and the personal, not to mention an impressive vocal-range which is at once delicate and powerful.

It so happens that of the more high-profile names listed among Annie Clark and Owen Pallett’s individual musical networks, we can find David Byrne – with whom St Vincent shared the bill on 2012’s Love This Giant album – and also Brian Eno, who features here on In Conflict, contributing synth, guitar and vocals. Byrne and Eno are, of course, seasoned collaborators who have worked together many times in the past and have in many ways made an art-form out of the act of collaboration itself. Both subscribe to the idea that creativity stems from specific situational parameters: "with whom one works" being a key factor in the eventual outcome of a piece of work.

Such collaborations are what make In Conflict so strikingly removed from its predecessors. The minimal, string-driven baroque of previous outings (Heartland as Owen Pallett, He Poos Clouds and Has A Good Home under the Final Fantasy moniker), sound relatively solipsistic when compared to this new record. Even though Pallett has always enlisted other musicians to help play his arrangements, these former records are presented as the work of a soloist who clones himself in the studio to create a great ream of Owens playing in unison.  

It’s hard to imagine In Conflict in this way. While the ambitious conceptual opera of Heartland saw the emergence of a subtle electronic influence, In Conflict fully consolidates orchestral majesty, textural electronic weirdness and the dynamics of rock into a single, satisfying sound. Here the classical arrangements are as prominent as ever. But even from the opener, ‘I Am Not Afraid’, we’re made aware of a distinct digital "fry" which pierces the lush string orchestration and punctuates Pallett’s vocal every few lines. After a brief crescendo, these strings are overthrown by a thudding industrial rhythm underpinned by a juxtaposition of sweet piano and dark horns. The subtle pizzicatos on ‘Song For Five & Six’ exist only to buoy down the track’s dominant disco-house arpeggiation. Similarly, the album’s climax, ‘Infernal Fantasy’, is a bombastic acid-jungle meltdown with these gorgeous little string-bends peeping out at the intro. As the track builds, these tiny gestures become incorporated with the bassline, which in turn takes the motif in numerous different directions.

Clearly, this is much more than a spinoff album from the guy who did the strings for Arcade Fire or a pet studio project by a session violinist tinkering away from his day-job. The production here is lush, and the content epic in scope. In short, In Conflict straddles worlds, not mixing desks – a fully-realised work of art whichever way you look at it.

Pallett sits at the centre of this album, conducting its universe – "pulling the strings" as it were. But these are the metaphorical strings of the heart and soul as well as the literal strings found on a piano or violin. While these are not "confessional" or "autobiographical" songs (terms Pallett is reportedly uncomfortable with), we’re less aware on this album of Pallett "the auteur" as Pallett "the psychic entity". Pallett’s references to RPG and fantasy narratives on previous outings allowed him to step outside of himself and into allegorical realms. On In Conflict, it feels more like we’re being shown candid glimpses of a psyche, but it’s never obvious as to whose these may belong. When Pallett, a gay man, sings "I’ll never have any children / I’m going to change my body" on ‘I Am Not Afraid’, are we to take this as a literal face-value statement from the songwriter himself, the voice of a quasi-fictitious archetype, or perhaps an intangible ethereal thoughtline existing somewhere between the two?

Lyrically, there’s a huge amount to unravel here. It would be disingenuous to try and draw lines between the many narratives and characters in these songs and the real-life Owen Pallett. However this change in lyrical direction makes the fantastical elements of (nevertheless excellent) albums like He Poos Clouds seem almost crass by comparison. Doubtless many of these lyrics come from the points of view of people other than Pallett himself, but these theoretical characters are routed in everyday life. They contradict each other, embrace each other. They make whimsical proclamations and argue against them before jacking it all in in favour of unbridled carnality.

It’s perhaps best to consider these songs from an oblique viewpoint, the strands of soliloquy and dialogue enmeshing, but never fully enveloping their subject matter. Words and phrases are intrinsically routed to their melody-lines: After trying in vain to consciously digest and make sense of In Conflict‘s universe, I find myself carrying around passages like mini-mantra – "Up from the heavens, one of the seven", "I’m twenty-eight and you’re nineteen", "I haven’t had a smoke in years but I will catch a drag if you are smoking", "’Do you agree?’ / ‘I disagree’". All the same, it’s impossible to ignore these phrases even if we choose not to interpret them in any literal way.

It wouldn’t be right to discuss highlights as any excess rind has been trimmed from this record. I could describe to you the eerie glug of ‘Chorale’, the urgent apocalyptic anthem of ‘The Riverbed’, but these delights should be uncovered for yourselves. Each track seems to have a hook, sequence or lyrical line which elevates it above the last. And for a fairly short 50-minute album it’s definitely something you can digest in one sitting without feeling overwhelmed. Nevertheless, In Conflict improves with each listen, new pieces of the puzzle falling into place, details making the picture clearer and more fascinating with each spin.

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