There’s a discernible shift in lyrical tone to be found on classically trained Torontonian Owen Pallett’s fourth solo album In Conflict. The pronouns are decidedly more personal than before, the poetry is often intensely direct, and the representational characters so prevalent in 2010’s Heartland, have been removed from the equation. In various instances throughout the album he even speaks of himself in the third person, challenging his own thoughts and behavior within the narrative. On his latest outing, everything is presented without the artifice of imaginary scenarios or fictitious societies, and as such, it’s all a rather intimate affair.
That’s not to say his poetic voice has now abruptly been replaced with songs that sound like they’ve been ripped from the pages of a key-locked diary, but it’s as if one were previously observing an entertaining, collegiate lecture that had suddenly become a lively, open Q&A session. A bridge has appeared, connecting the edges of the chasm between artist and audience. Pallett’s wit is still ever abundant, yet the dominance of social satire as seen through a utopian lens, has been dialed back and substituted for something much more honest. His audience already has a solid idea of who Pallett the artist is, but In Conflict lets them take a further glimpse into Pallett, the flesh and blood human being.
While he’s a virtuosic marvel to behold in a live setting, with simply a violin and a looping pedal at his command, the rhythmic elements of the new album are eminently more organic than past records. With the incorporation of a full band, a sound that was only hinted at on Heartland, there’s an unselfconscious air to the record that adds warmth to Pallett’s intricate compositions. The electronic components of the last album have been expanded upon, yet there are no contemporary song cycles to be found here.
The songs of In Conflict appear to be little, emotional snapshots, and the intimacy of He Poos Clouds is only intermittently revisited towards the center of the record. The lyrical content delves into topics of identity crises, bouts of perceived insanity, addiction, depression, gender identity and the multitude of transitional periods humans experience in their lifetime. As it is, these trials and upheavals are presented in a way that is both reverential to the internal struggle and refreshingly mundane. Make no mistake, there’s nothing about this album that screams “self help manual”. The emotions are presented as just another way of being. With Brian Eno and the FILMHarmonic Orchestra Prague in tow, In Conflict proves to be Pallett’s most confident artistic expression thus far, adroitly unifying his clever instrumentation with both the new live feel of a band and the album’s synth-oriented beats and textures.
These thirteen tracks, while often humorous, occasionally enter emotionally dark territory, the likes that haven’t been explored this candidly before by the artist. One needs to look no further than the opening track “I Am Not Afraid” to notice the winds have changed directions. In the second stanza he sings
I’ll never have any children, I’d bear them and eat them, my children
. With a winking nod to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, A Modest Proposal and a probable glimpse into his personal opinion about starting a family in his thirties, Pallett has opened a window, if not a door to his inner thoughts. In the same song, he amusingly mentions that it would have been more practical to deal with the struggle of quitting smoking, by punching walls and burning boxes of old love letters, than simply gnawing on a toothpick to curb the nicotine craving, as others had suggested.
There’s something quite marvelous about the undercurrent of tension that is threaded throughout the confines of “I Am Not Afraid”. Dissonance is slowly squeezed out of the strings towards the end of phrases, as Eno’s layered vocals provide a filmic choral effect underneath, perfectly reflecting the internal conflict of Pallett’s contemplative lyrics. The title track begins with what seems to be the sound of a vintage synthesizer, lending the track a decidedly retro air, and recalling the early work of Ghostly International artist Tycho. Eventually a churning beat drops, bringing to mind the sound of whips flying through the air before they strike or the whirring effect of an ultrasound machine.
Arresting second single “On A Path”, with its playful string arrangement, proves to be one of the album’s most immediate offerings. Pallett sings,
You stand in a city that you don’t know any more spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before…you tried to rule the world but you couldn’t get beyond the front door
. “You” becomes “I” as the song progresses, as if Pallett commiserates with the nameless friend of the song, as they walk along the shoreline of a lake. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel The Dispossessed is mentioned within the song, as if but a remaining residue of Pallett’s lyrical fascination with utopian and anarchic idealism, carried over from his previous releases. As thoughtfully pensive as the rest of the song is, there’s something quite beautiful about one of its lyrics:
You say you’ll never go home but the truth is you never left it
. As witty as his poetry often is, the most simplistic of lyrics often prove to be the most resonant.
The arpeggiated synths of “Song For Five & Six” propel the deceptively buoyant song along, as it climaxes in a gorgeous tangle of entwined violins. The string melody that surfaces three-fourths of the way through “The Secret Seven” pleasantly recalls a passage from Christopher Theonafidis’s 2000 orchestral work Rainbow Body. The record then slows down considerably towards the middle half, without losing any of the momentum that preceded it. “Chorale” features some stunningly elegiac brass work, the likes that haven’t been so beautifully rendered since Björk’s “Overture” from her Dancer in the Dark soundtrack Selmasongs. “The Passions” paints a darkly uncomfortable picture of an encounter between Pallett and a younger man of nineteen, as The Smiths’s The Queen is Dead plays in the background of their awkward bedroom scene. It’s the album’s crowning jewel, and as perfect a portrait of vulnerability and unease as anything recorded in recent memory.
The electrocardiographic sounds found in “The Sky Behind The Flag” suitably compliment the expansive orchestral passage that closes the track. The colliding chaos of the turbulent track “The Riverbed” is introduced with yet another sumptuous brass arrangement, simply titled “—-> (1)”, before plowing ahead into one the few tracks that finds Pallett embracing his inner rock star. It suits him rather well. The frantic, swirling synths of “Infernal Fantasy” and the plucked string lightheartedness of “Soldiers Rock” inject the second half of the album with the same vigorous dose of energy that opened the set. The final, minute and a half instrumental track “—-> (2)” contains the same metallic, insect-like sound effects that were also inexplicably present in “Chorale”. Besides coming off like an homage to Michael Nyman, it’s uncertain what the track’s purpose serves as an album closer, but it’s undeniably pretty.
Owen Pallett, whose career as of late has blossomed with an Academy Award nomination for his Arcade Fire-assisted score of the film Her, shows no signs of creative fatigue with his latest recording. Along with his seemingly unending, collaborative orchestration work for various mainstream and indie artists, as well as his recent foray into club banging house music with Dan Snaith’s new DAPHNI project, Pallett proves that he has both the moxy and the natural aptitude to unite the pop, indie rock and classical worlds without anyone batting an eyelash. The confidently poised In Conflict exhibits both a maturation in his ever-evolving compositional style and a boldness in his now assertive vocal performances. The timid singer presented three albums ago on Has A Good Home has all but disappeared. On “Song For Five & Six” he sings,
There’s a gap between what a man wants and what a man will receive
. It appears that gap has narrowed. If there’s any modicum of justice out there, he’ll continue receiving both the critical and commercial accolades his music most definitely merits.