Key Tracks: “I Am Not Afraid” “The Riverbed”
Although quick enough to be mistaken for an interlude, my favorite song off of Owen Pallett’s 2010 album “Heartland” is “Flare Gun.” The song, reflective of the album as a whole, sounds ripped out of a carnival. It’s got nearly a full orchestra behind it, and an almost sickeningly catchy rhythm. The song, and the album, is pop music, for sure. But it’s a puzzle. Pallett’s music has always been layered and difficult to grasp, and it’s what makes him the talented force he is today. “In Conflict” represents a drastic departure from “Heartland,” looking a whole new direction, with equally great results.
Pallett is, occasionally, described as “baroque pop.” It’s fair to say this isn’t really a popular genre of music today, and indeed, a Wikipedia search of the genre lists a number of very famous, very long-gone bands (Beach Boys, Moody Blues, and, confoundingly, the Beatles). But Pallett’s use of a wide number of instruments sets him aside from other alt-pop acts of today. On “Heartland,” he used those instruments to create a whole universe that he didn’t let the listener into. It’s a fun album, on the surface, and one whose storied lyrics gift many re-listens. But on “In Conflict,” his fourth solo album, he lets the listener come inside the puzzle and see the man inside. And he manages to do this without sacrificing any of the ambition.
The immediate thing to notice on “In Conflict” is a notable turn towards darkness; this album is gloomy, rarely offering anything promising. While “Heartland” sounded like a cryptic carnival, “In Conflict” resembles the longest night of the year – sure, things will get better, and there’s good things happening, but it isn’t enough. The album’s first song, “I Am Not Afraid,” mixes calming piano over industrial beats, starting off a bit unsettling. There’s fewer instruments, but they’re just as effective. Pallett goes for strings and synth rhythms to convey some convoluted moods. “On a Path” and “The Passions,” for example, use string sections to hit melodic, ballad highs. “Song For Five & Six” and “The Sky Behind the Flag,” meanwhile, benefit from their use of synth rhythms and space-y moods to add a bit of uncertainty to the mix.
The lyrics on “In Conflict” really help to open the album up to the man behind the music. Early on the album, he sings about growing up without a heart. Later, on “The Passions,” he invites the listener into the bedroom with him, solely as a viewer. “In Conflict,” on it’s most immediate level, shows Pallett as a human that never existed on “Heartland.” It’s dark, sure, but what’s to be expected of a man who can pull off baroque pop in 2014?
It’s also worth noting that, to go along with the album’s theme of pulling away the curtain and revealing the wizard, Pallett offers more vocally. He really shines on “On a Path,” but his voice is more present throughout than it was before. Whether he’s delivering some sort of devastating lyrics, or merely singing pitches – he’s more apparent on this album, more upfront and more available. His vocals add a personal force throughout; stronger and more frequent.
“In Conflict” isn’t the album for people looking for something fun. Its title sums it up pretty well – there’s a lot of conflicting emotions going on here. Ballads are interspersed with forceful tracks. It’s all personal, and ambitious, but humanly so. If “Heartland” was a puzzle the listener could never crack, “In Conflict” is one where Pallett has himself given up and left it to the listener to complete. It’s moodier and more contemplative, with effective music to go alongside. On “In Conflict,” Pallett fully proves himself as an ambitious alt-pop force who can’t be reckoned with, even if he wants to be.
If you like this, try: I’ve never shied away from a chance to promote Dirty Projectors’ last full-length, “Swing Lo Magellan.” It’s in a similar vain or something, just listen to both.
-By Andrew McNally