Owen Pallett – In Conflict
by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published May 27th 2014
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Canadian singer, songwriter and astoundingly talented multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett released his last proper record, Heartland, nearly four and a half years ago. To the untrained eye it might appear that Pallett went silent in the meantime, but his extensive resume of string and orchestral arrangements for arena-sized players like Arcade Fire and The National tells an entirely different story. He’s even stepped in as a touring member for the former’s Reflek-tour and been nominated for a Best Original Score Oscar for his work on Spike Jonze’s Her in the past year. The sizeable gap between solo LPs makes perfect sense when taking all this into account, and fittingly, In Conflict seems to come from a very different headspace than the one in which we last saw Pallett.
Much was made of Heartland’s high-concept backstory upon its release. Pallett explained the record as a series of one-sided dialogues between “ultra-violent farmer” Lewis and his omniscient creator, set in its own fictional universe. It was a richly orchestrated record, with pop sensibilities that belied its dark lyrical content. In Conflict does away with the conceptual framework and sees Pallett addressing that darkness in more direct and personal ways than ever before. He’s denied presenting these songs as “confessional,” but there’s no avoiding the raw, candid streak of a record whose first chorus centers around the phrase “I’ll never have any children.”
That opening track, “I Am Not Afraid,” is both a tone-setting introduction to the more inwardly-focused world of In Conflict and one of its finest moments. It’s a rousing, catchy song whose chorus sentiments about abandoning fear and finding salvation in discipline run up against verses about punching walls, trashing boxes of love letters and seeing the world “as ash.” In Conflict, indeed. Pallett has called the record his “most confusing” to date, and that’s an easy sentiment to get behind upon hearing it. It feels more personal, yes, but it’s often difficult to pull anything resembling a conventional narrative out of Pallett’s lyrics. Amid the scenes set throughout the record are flashes of sex (“The Passions”), violence (“Soldiers Rock”), alcoholism (“The Riverbed”) and isolation (“On A Path”) that feel more like pieces of the larger puzzle than standalone stories. They’re the intimate details that play into the record’s wider fixations on cosmic doubt and dread. In Conflict’s knotty maze of lyrics isn’t easy to parse, but that’s part of the point. It’s not a record that assumes there are easy answers to the massive, messy questions it poses.
In keeping with its heavy thematic concerns, In Conflict’s sonic palette feels more muted than its predecessor. The arrangements are no less meticulous and engaging, but they eschew some of Heartland’s more bombastic tendencies. The more restrained affair is aided by backing vocals and instrumental contributions from Brian Eno, of all people, whose presence and influence on the record become more and more evident with closer and closer listening. Tinges of the downtempo tracks from Eno’s mid-70s art-pop quadrilogy make their way into these synth-and-string arrangements, and his singular voices succeeds in subtly complimenting Pallett’s.
The attentive repeated listens that bring out the record’s Eno-isms are ultimately what sell In Conflict as a whole. It’s a less immediately approachable album than Pallett’s made in the past, and from its ink-blotted artwork to its fluid tracklisting (CD/digital and multiple vinyl iterations all end on different notes), that seems to be his intention. It takes its time getting under your skin, but it’s a thought-provoking piece of work that rewards your attention. Here’s to hoping we won’t wait another four and a half year’s for Pallett’s next missive.