Review: Owen Pallett, In Conflict

Owen Pallett is looser, braver, more unruly and less fussy than before.
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Owen Pallett is looser, braver, more unruly and less fussy than before.
owen pallett in conflict

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

In the decade since his emergence with his debut record as Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy Has A Good Home, Canadian wunderkind Owen Pallett has taken many roles: in-demand indie rock string arranger, film score composer, sideman for Arcade Fire and Beirut, impromptu elucidator of the music theory behind pop hits, and more. The emphasis, though, has to fall on that word “role.” Pallett’s done an admirable job of creeping toward minor ubiquity while remaining one of our most intensely guarded, least accessible pop musicians. In interviews, he’s engaging but careful. Even that first album, ostensibly his most traditionally singer-songwriter-ly effort, wavered between seemingly straightforward confessional chamber-pop and cuts like the apocalyptic “The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead,” and on “Learn To Keep Your Mouth Shut, Owen Pallett,” his artistic persona was already splitting off from and even turning against his actual self. Since then, Pallett has only embraced artifice more ardently, crafting elaborate, erudite fantasy worlds on each of his LPs and then twisting them with liberal applications of arch irony until dichotomies like authentic vs. performative, creator vs. creation, primary vs. supplementary, reality vs. art fall apart into endless feedback loops. Every time you think you’re getting close to the source of this stuff, with a swift kick he sends you on a labyrinthine detour that leads somewhere else entirely.

Yet what’s always been most mind-bending about Pallett’s work isn’t that his presence in it is so elusive, but that he continually concedes the possibility that everything really is exactly as it seems. His challenges to convention function both ways: we can never get to the “authentic” Owen Pallett underneath the character he presents himself to be on record, but maybe that character actually does correspond to the artist himself, after all. Pallett’s earliest songwriting found him screaming into his violin, a gesture that could be read as aggressive and performative or raw and immediate — listener's choice. With Pallett, it’s useless to think there’s an “authentic,” quantifiable truth somewhere in there to be unearthed, but it’s folly to deny the effect of the music, too. It’s unproductive to insist on his songwriting as autobiography, but absurd to doubt there’s something of the songwriter embedded in the material. To ignore that you’re being manipulated is naïve, but to reject the idea of honesty altogether will make the music feel pointless. Pallett’s work is so exciting and challenging because it thrives in such impasses but doesn’t force any particular solution for them.

Which is all say that as (sometimes ridiculously) dense, ornate, and often befuddling as Pallett’s concepts, compositions, and conceits can be, they’re also always communicative at heart. He’s a musician who appears to have no interest in exposing himself yet who desperately wants to explain himself. Heartland, about a character Pallett created who rebels against his status as a created being, was as much about capital-letter Big Ideas – creative anxiety, theistic belief, alienation from the self, the need for mutual understanding, the desire to make sense of the world, the twisted mechanics of power in society, and asking whether it’s moral or sensible to fight and maybe die for a freedom you know you’ll never achieve – as it was about a peasant farmer in an ultraviolent medieval fantasy land called Spectrum. That’s some pretty real subject matter for a work that goes out of its way to play with artifice, no?

So now, four years later, here’s In Conflict, which Pallett’s repeatedly described as an attempt at being more “direct,” autobiographical, personal. It’s his second album under his own name after six years as Final Fantasy; it’s devoid of an obviously literary narrative; the whole thing’s not so palpably suffused with icy, teasing irony. Although the instrumentation still leans heavily on neoclassical strings (Pallett’s own multi-tracked violin as well as those of the Czech FILMharmonic Orchestra), it makes more space than ever before for electronics and proggy rock sounds, many of them courtesy of new collaborator Brian Eno. So yes, in some ways, it does scan as an uncharacteristically direct effort for this musician. Yet it turns out that a version of Owen Pallett who’s let his guard down is still 1) a version, and 2) deeply enigmatic. If In Conflict presents something close(r) to “the real Owen Pallett,” he’s contradictory and opaque, as people tend to be.

Pallett works to deconstruct and correct the persona that’s inadvertently arisen from his past work – that of some witty, clever, music school teacher’s pet. The Pallett here is difficult to pin down but recognizably full-blooded. His most violent impulses are laid bare rather than redirected via characters and scenes. He’s scared shitless, devastated by remorse and the fact of mortality, on opener “I Am Not Afraid” and “Song For Five & Six.” He’s sometimes self-centered and often lustful, frankly and aggressively so, as on the title track, with its command, “Let me see that ass!” Pallett holes up with an attractive teen, does a lot of drugs, and has embarrassingly bad sex during “The Passions.” (The brilliant, errant detail is that they fail to get it on while listening to The Queen Is Dead. Yep, this album definitely takes place in the real and present world.)

Pallett’s lyrics resist reductive closure and break down simplistic misconceptions, so even though In Conflict is sonically quite pleasant, it has a remarkable sense of riskiness to it. It’s genuinely unpredictable and potentially explosive. Because the lyrics do not draw attention to themselves as they have tended to in Pallett's work, the real draw on In Conflict is the music itself, and it’s there that the album’s dangerousness and boldness come most into focus. The music possesses real rock-band swagger even though it’s composed mostly of strings and keyboards – check, especially but not solely, the all-cylinders-fired climax “The Riverbed.” In Conflict is looser, braver, more unruly and less fussy than its predecessors. It leaves its loose ends hanging for all to see; indeed, while never minimal, these songs are nearly exoskeletal. They often seem composed only of colorful accents, taking shape from the negative space and internal harmonies put forth by dozens of decorative flourishes. The lovely “Chorale” pits a rich, amber horn section against a broad, ever-shifting array of sound effects and percussive tics; we witness “Song For Five & Six,” being built from the foundational synthesizer loop upward to an eventually towering string arrangement.

Throughout In Conflict, Pallett opens up his compositions even more than his lyrics, but the songwriting is no less brainy, and themes no less tangled, than on his earlier work. Indeed, that Pallett manages to open up this way without diluting his work’s most distinctive qualities is perhaps the most autobiographical thing about In Conflict – no matter what developmental turns Pallett makes, his songs could never sound like anyone else’s. B+