Intensity in a musician can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a good thing in that it pushes artists to their absolute limits, with the tenaciousness of their art being maxed out to deliver something incredibly special. It can be a bad thing in when it swings artists into a black hole of pretension and experimentation so severe that their inherent artistic drive is compromised. Owen Pallett, from what I’ve seen, is an intense musician. Last year, I saw him open for Grizzly Bear. Whereas Ed Droste and the guys are a rather chill bunch, Pallett had a seriousness and distanced demeanor about him. At first it was a bit off putting, but the way he wailed into the microphone changed that. Plus, his fiery passion on the violin is unmatched. This clear intensity is probably what resulted in In Conflict becoming Pallett’s most ambitious and fully realized project yet.
Heartland, his previous album, is a pretty yet rather forgettable affair. There are some great songs, but the project simply strives to be pleasant. In the interim between these albums, Pallett has done a lot. He’s worked more with Arcade Fire as they’ve expanded beyond their original formula, and he composed the score for the ambitious human comedy-drama Her (and got an Oscar nomination to boot), in addition to working with bands as diverse as Titus Andronicus, The National (my favorite work of his as a guest musician), and Linkin Park. Gone is the immaturity of naming an album He Poos Clouds.
In Conflict is striking in how fully realized it is. Whereas Heartland was a collection of pretty orchestral arrangements, In Conflict has fully realized songs with gorgeous melodies and ornamental instrumental arrangements. Pallett, while being a violinist first, gives some great vocal performances throughout. His distinctive, Ed Droste-like vocal is striking and helps to command the lush vastness of the songs here. While the electronic whirl of the sound on Song For Five & Six could suffocate any average singer, Pallett manages to stay afloat amid the Giorgio Moroder snake of synthesizers. This song also shows off that his violin, despite all the sound going on around him, can command any solo or backing part with distinctive flare. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also made massive improvements with the way his melodies are written. The melodies on songs like I Am Not Afraid and In Conflict are pleasant, and they are easy to hum along to for days after hearing them for the first time.
The album, like his past couple of projects, can have a tendency of maintaining a sameness throughout. For some artists this can be a massive problem, but luckily Pallett’s sound pallet is fleshed out enough for this sameness to work in his favor. His ears for pretty harmonies and his use of atmosphere and lush orchestral arrangements makes In Conflict pleasant to listen to. When I first listened to the album, I was able to leave it on for a couple of hours without getting annoyed. The sounds are so warm that you can almost wrap yourself up in the strings like a blanket. All the little enjoyable flourishes, like the harmonies on The Secret Seven, just grow with each listen.
Sometimes, the album can veer into territory that doesn’t entirely work. While the light electronic flourishes work, some of the heavier sounds on Chorale derail the mood of the album. But then, there are experimental moments that work in every way imaginable. The dissonant cloud of strings that comes in at the beginning of The Passions is haunting and shocking, and absolutely gives this album a much needed punch of uncertainty after the opening tracks maintained a simple “prettiness” about them. The inherent ugliness in this album, and the way it bubbles up and down via the electronic music, helps to maintain the inherent darkness behind Owen’s abstract story. In an interview with Pitchfork, he mentions that his mentality during the album affected him deeply, and he mentioned that “I just started to get a deeper sense of dysphoria; it was like I wasn’t writing about these events that happened in my life like I was a man. Which isn’t to say that they were gender dysphoric, but they were coming from a place of really deep discomfort.”. The odd clashing nature of songs like The Sky Behind the Flag and the motif of violence brought up on songs like Soldiers Rock establish this discontent and confusion; the way the violins practically screech on Soldiers Rock and then settle back into melodious contentment perfectly represent Pallett’s mindset. Even a song like Infernal Fantasy, which is driven by Pallett’s light vocal, never quite settles into anything remotely comfortable. It’s odd dissonance drives the song forward, creating a claustrophobic sound that exemplifies the emotions established in the album.
In Conflict is certainly a gorgeous, well arranged orchestral chamber pop record. But it also has an underlying darkness that makes it become just a bit more. Pallett experiments with darker electronic noise to make his crooning and sweeping strings sound like howling wolves. The Riverbed manages to sound as intense as a Godspeed You Black Emperor! crescendo, in a much shorter time. Much like his buddy Droste in Grizzly Bear, Pallett has made his inherently pretty talents useful in expressing some darker emotions. Much in the way Grizzly Bear’s Will Calls established that band’s ability to express vicious and brutal emotion in a considerably beautiful way, In Conflict shows Pallett establishing his dislocation and fear in the world. Pallett may be a guy with a good hand for strings and a pretty voice, but his lyrics and emotions can say a whole lot more.
Summary: On the surface, the really solid In Conflict is a pretty album that shows some slight growth for Pallett as a singer and orchestral arranger. However, the deeper darkness behind the album shows Pallett to be a succinct and deft songwriter, using his music to express strong emotions in creative and innovative ways.
Choice Cuts: I Am Not Afraid, The Riverbed, Infernal Fantasy, The Passions
Choice Cuts: —> (2)
You can stream The Riverbed below. In Conflict is out now on Domino