Owen Pallett is known as somewhat of a musical academic, penning numerous essays deconstructing elements of different popular songs to explain why they work and don’t work. And in his spare time, he is a frequent collaborator with Arcade Fire, arranging strings on all of their albums while also being nominated with band member Will Butler for best original score for the movie “Her.” Though I had listened to little of Pallett’s solo material (some of which was previously done under the moniker Final Fantasy — not to be confused with the video game), I had high expectations because of his established pedigree and by the fact that I always thought the strings in Arcade Fire songs were particularly strong. On “In Conflict,” his second solo album under his own name, Pallett provides a challenging soundscape to listeners that encompasses conflicts within one’s mind by throwing contrasting musical viewpoints together. The result is an honest look into the clashing thoughts that are tossed about in our own heads every day.
Pallett finds the sweet spot on songs like the album opener, “I Am Not Afraid.” Discordant repetitive strings hang a constant worry in the background, while swirling synths come and go. Pallett’s boyish voice croons about overcoming fears of mortality and growing older as he sings, “And I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me.” The conflicting lyrics, along with a sweeter-sounding orchestration that penetrates the discordance, make this song an encapsulation of why this album was titled, “In Conflict.” Pallett knows that his emotions can pull him in multiple directions at the same time, and rather than hiding from either set of them, puts them both on display at once — and shows us how difficult it can be to deal with them.
Other songs, however, such as the bloated “Chorale,” are weighed down by Pallett’s struggle between his classical training and pop intuitions. While containing very expressive and honest personal lyrics, the song is scattered with watery synths and electronic drumbeats, and strings that continually threaten to reach a climax but never really take off. Pallett is at his best on this record when his surreal lyrics and soundscapes are able to surround and immerse us, rather than drown us.
Tracks such as “The Passions,” wallow in more dissonance and melancholy vocals and lyrics, but at least to my ear are more stylistically modeled with classical elements. The dreariness seems to be intentional, and trying to prove that, like life, something can be harsh and sad, yet intricate and beautiful at the same time.
In “The Riverbed,” Pallett at least comes to some kind of ease with his insecurities, as he sings over triumphant yet anxious horns, “Out of thought, out of house, out of your mind / Lay your head, lay your heart next to mine / And try to admit that you might have it wrong.” The ease still comes with apprehension of future failings, as admitting we have a fault could leave room for future faults.
This is an album that is certainly a challenging listen, but gives more and more reward on repeated listens. Pallett’s straddling of pop and classical motifs keeps the album’s theme of having conflicts within one’s self represented by conflicts between the album’s music, and takes the listener along on its turbulent emotional journey. Pallett’s continual confrontation of styles ultimately makes for a work of great achievement and attention to detail — even if it’s occasionally bogged down by over-instrumentation. “In Conflict” is certainly one of the best records of the year, and the most honest.
Rating: 4 stars