A fair number of people have absolutely no idea who Owen Pallett is, even though they’ve likely heard his music in one place or another. His primary claim to fame has been as a composer/unofficial member of Arcade Fire, most recently earning an Oscar nomination for his work with the band on the soundtrack to the 2013 film Her. Most, if not all of the band’s string arrangements come directly from his brain. He’s composed for other bands on occasion as well, including Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mountain Goats, the latter of which was a lyrical inspiration for his new solo record In Conflict. After releasing solo material in the mid-00’s under the Final Fantasy moniker (which he was forced to change due to a lawsuit with video game creators Square Enix), in 2010 Pallett put out Heartland under his own name. Like everything he had done up until that point, Heartland was a concept record, telling the story of Lewis from a fictional realm called Spectrum, who faces off in a battle with his God (named “Owen Pallett”). It was a rich and engrossing album that practically demanded to be heard in full in one sitting, each thread connected and lightly pulling on the one before.
In Conflict is similar in that it too is best digested all at once; however conceptually speaking there is no singular narrative or storyline to follow. There are themes though, and many of the songs deal with self-doubt, depression, loneliness and the challenges of connecting with others. These are things we all face from time to time, though some of us deal with it a lot more than others. There seems to be a lot greater resonance the older you are too, as friends slowly disappear into their marriages and families, what’s a thirty or forty-something single person with no children to do? In the opener “I Am Not Afraid,” Pallett appears to have come to some sort of a resolution about his life. “I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me / I am no longer afraid / The truth doesn’t terrify us, terrify us / My salvation is found in discipline,” he sings with confidence.
Yet as quickly as he finds direction, he loses it once more. “On A Path” is about losing your place or outgrowing your hometown and the subsequent wanderlust as you search for a new place to settle. Mental illness and the “It Gets Better” Project are the focus of “The Secret Seven,” inspired in part by the suicide of gay violin student Tyler Clementi. Pallett seeks to relate his own experience with mental illness as a teen as well as those of his friends in the hopes of helping others dealing with the same issues. He even gives out his phone number at the end of the song so those in despair can call him to talk if need be. Later in the record “The Sky Behind the Flag” deals with the desire to control every aspect of our lives and exert that same influence on the world at large. The idea is that such micromanagement can only end in destruction and implosion, as others as well as the universe do not like being ruled by an iron fist. Above all else however, “The Riverbed” probably best represents the album’s overall themes. The subject matter on that track ranges from writer’s block to depression to alcoholism to growing older without children, which is basically a nasty cocktail of anxiety and dread. Dark as it may get, the final verse seeks to provide some degree of solace, particularly with the line, “Try to admit that you might have it wrong.” In other words, though you may be haunted by your failures, perhaps everyone else considers you a success.
Such is the point of a record titled In Conflict, as our mental states often clash with one another in obtuse ways. That idea also comes through from the instrumental side of things, supported in no small part by the master of the oblique, Brian Eno. While Pallett does an incredible job with string/orchestral arrangements and there are plenty of them on this album, he’s also chosen to expand his sound to incorporate more electronic elements. He’s done a fair amount in that area before, but never to such an extent. Pretty much every song has at least a touch of violin in it, but there’s also a wealth of digital effects like beats and bleeps, often accompanied by some sort of synth or Mellotron as they work well together. Those sorts of moments are particularly evident on “The Passion,” “Infernal Fantasy,” the title track and a couple others. It’s easy to say that this is where Eno’s influence bleeds through the most, as the non-symphonic, non-guitar areas are almost always his specialty. The only disappointing thing about it will likely be how some of these songs come across when performed on stage. There’s a certain excitement that comes with watching Pallett build sonic landscapes through his unique looping techniques, and electronic/synth stuff pulls him out of that world, however temporarily.
As a whole, In Conflict represents yet another masterstroke from Pallett, who has increasingly proven to be one of the top composers making music today. The lack of any official conceptual elements connecting all of the songs through characters or ideas relieves us from the distraction of trying to analyze and dig out some sort of storyline so we can focus on what’s really being done and said on the individual tracks. Every moment is fascinating in one way or another, be it a delicate instrumental composition or a single word/phrase. Whether or not they are influenced by or autobiographical to the man behind them is certainly up for debate, but what’s not is their intention to provoke a response from the listener. Hidden beneath the themes of fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for yourself. Thankfully, this record allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.
Owen Pallett – Song for Five & Six