Review – “In Conflict” – Owen Pallett

in conflictreviewed by Elena Gritzan & Michael Thomas

Owen Pallett is an artist that means a lot to both Elena and Michael, so they decided to do a first for Grayowl Point—a double review. The review is inspired in format by the AV Club‘s “crosstalks.” The album officially releases tomorrow, May 27.

Michael: Four years after the momentous Heartland and not a moment too soon, In Conflict, Owen Pallett’s fourth full-length, is finally seeing the light of day. And boy, is it a doozy. It’s a sprawling epic that deals with having children, gender issues, fractured relationships and so much more to name that it certainly lives up to its album name. Oh yeah, and Brian Eno is on this thing.

In interviews, Pallett has said that he deliberately made this album as jarring as possible, and he certainly succeeds. “The Riverbed” is possibly the closest he’ll come to making a full-out rock and roll song, and the first time I heard it my mouth just fell open and stayed there. It’s bigger and darker than he’s ever been. But on the other side, he can be tender. “The Passions” is a delicate and moving portrait of a relationship told in very few words.

As “conflicted” as the album is, it’s got a solid opener in “I Am Not Afraid,” a song that deals directly with aforementioned gender issues right at the beginning with the line “I am not afraid, ze said.” It’s loud and proud, and features probably my favourite line of the entire album: “I haven’t had a smoke in years/But I will catch a drag if you are smoking.” Not to mention the gut punch of the repeated line: “I’ll never have any children.”

“On a Path” is another emotional one, starting off carefully orchestrated and low-key before Pallett proclaims “You stand in a city you don’t know anymore/Spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before.” Not to mention Infernal Fantasy, long since a part of Pallett’s live show, with its gorgeous imagery: “Across the overpass, it starts to rain/We leave your father’s house, enveloped in flames.”

There’s so much more to say, of course. Given your genre preferences, Elena, what do you make of Pallett’s more electronic direction this time around?

Elena: I think the electronic textures are a really great enhancement for his usual classical instrumentation. Everything sounds so much more dramatic and evocative when you add a soaring synth to an already heartwrenching violin melody! I’m thinking specifically about “Song for Five & Six,” which I think might be the most beautiful thing that he’s done. Its layers fit together perfectly, adding on to each other as building blocks to create a delicate, complicated, ornamental whole.

I think it’s interesting that you see “The Passions” as the tale of a relationship (my other favourite song on the album, by the way). I see it as more of a failed one night stand, a small glimpse into something intensely vulnerable and fragile. The image of “trying to get it on in bed” being ruined by the younger partner putting on The Smiths standing out particularly.

But that’s the magic of a lot of this album, I think. It can be interpreted in such different ways. He’s writing about his actual experiences and personal struggles this time around, but he’s done so in such an honest way that the specifics of the situation aren’t what stand out. Instead it’s the emotions, the passion.

Going back to “Song for Five & Six,” the first verse of that is what struck me as the most relatable, personally. I spent much of my youth writing about fantastic worlds and made-up creatures (and “stencilling diagrams” of the plots, invariably trilogies). Writing was always some way of making sense of the world, of sorting out who I was and what the world was like, which could easily be interpreted as an act in defense against “the terror of the infinite.” And, as becomes clear later in the song, the real world turns out not to be quite as magical.

I don’t know if that’s at all what Pallett meant by the verse since he writes with such powerful metaphor, but it speaks to me for sure. Was there anything on the album that struck you as particularly relatable?

Michael: First off, I’m glad you were able to articulate what I could not about why this album so immediately clicked with me—it’s his most honest and emotional piece of work to date. I consider Heartland to be one of the best albums of the last decade and a masterpiece, but there’s only so far one can relate to an ultraviolent farmer who kills his own creator.

But to answer your question, I’ve got to return to “On a Path,” which I mentioned at the beginning. Apparently Pallett wrote this song before he moved from Toronto to Montreal because of a sense of malaise with the city, but it captures those feelings well. When I think about the lyrics I think about how I’ve spent most of my life in Mississauga, Ont., and how each year I grew more and more irritated with my surroundings.

“You stand in a city that you don’t know anymore” just really got to me in a big way. Mississauga was my home for so many years and while I feel like I should hold more nostalgia for the place I grew up, it became more and more alien of a place to me. But then this line comes along: “You say you’ll never go home but the truth is you never left it.” And it’s true; we all want to move on and do new things but we’re defined by our homes and thus never really leave it.

I could also relate a bit to “The Sky Behind the Flag,” which I initially loved because of that steady electronic beat that flowed in naturally from “The Passions.” But I interpret the song to mean the conflict between wanting to be the comforting presence in a relationship while also occasionally needing to “lose control,” and it’s a delicate balance to strike.

We’ve talked a lot about how personal this album is, so here’s my question: which songs on the album sounded the least “Owen Pallett-like” to you and which ones could you have seen as having a place on some of his previous works?

Elena: I’m hesitant to describe anything as belonging to his previous works, since all of In Conflict seemed like an extension of what he’s done before to me. There are some distinctive Pallet-isms spread throughout: fantasy/mythical imagery, doubling his own voice, and obviously the violin prominence. But the overall feeling is distinct, to my ears at least.

There were some hints that this album’s sound was coming, though, on the A Swedish Love Story EP that was released in late 2010 (wow, can you believe it was that long ago?) That’s when he first subtly incorporated synthesizers, and the second half of In Conflict has the same steady driving tempo, if in a much louder rock-style form.

There was continuity with his previous work that I’ve been trying to find – you know how he used to kill himself in every album? Drowning at the end of Has a Good Home, “I’m Afraid of Japan,” on He Poos Clouds, and the obvious death of the Owen character in Heartland? I’m not sure if he’s doing this again or I’m just hoping he does and reading into things! The name Owen first comes up in the lyrics in “The Sky Behind the Flag” and the next song (“The Riverbed”) has “hurtle hurtle into the breach, let your body fall out of reach”.

Okay, I’ll stop avoiding your question. The song that sounds the least “Owen Pallett”-like to me was “The Secret Seven”. The lyrics and the message are wonderful (he even gives out his own phone number at the end in case you feel like to need someone to talk to!), but it doesn’t do it for me musically. Something about the moderate tempo and timid melody had me skipping it more often than not when listening to the album leisurely.

I know that we both really respect his work and consider him one of our favourite artists, but was there anything on the album that didn’t really work for you?

Michael: I’m totally with you on “The Secret Seven,” which I definitely find pleasant but not quite meshing. I’m an adherent to the “less is more” philosophy of music to some degree—I think truly great songs can pack everything up into succinct packages (around the three-minute mark or less, preferably) but if they’re longer, they have to be spectacular. On Heartland there were several long songs, but each thrilled in their own way or struck an emotional tone; those were “The Great Elsewhere,” “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and “Tryst with Mephistopheles.” So going by this rule, I didn’t feel like “The Secret Seven” quite hit either of those peaks.

And while I enjoyed the horn-heavy, kind of declarative feel of “Chorale,” I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seemed a lot less personal and almost like a Bible story (though, let’s be real, I would pay large sums of money to read Bible stories written by Owen Pallett.) It didn’t quite have that emotional punch that most of these other songs did.

Your thoughts on the Owen Pallett Death Trope and the fact that his name came up in “The Sky Behind the Flag” got me thinking about how often his music seems to be in a conversation with himself. As far as back as Has a Good Home he had a song called “Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut, Owen Pallett,” so I have to wonder how many of these songs were particularly difficult for him to talk about.

I’m thinking back to another interview he did with Vish Khanna that talked about the issue of him having kids is a delicate one, so I wonder if the line “I’ll never have any children” in “I Am Not Afraid” was really about his own feelings on the matter.

We’re getting near the end of this thing, so I’d like to know your thoughts on the songs we haven’t touched on much, specifically “Infernal Fantasy,” “Soldier’s Rock” and the bonus track “Bridle & Bit.”

Elena:  I’m surprised we’ve neglected to really talk about “Infernal Fantasy” so far, I think that it’s definitely a high point of the album. It’s got a nice gentle build-up that crescendoes to a magnificant peak. (You’ve seen the new material played live, right? Rob Gordon’s drumming on this one is insane.)

Speaking of Rob Gordon, we’ve also not yet mentioned that this album marks the return of Pallett’s Les Mouches bandmates, Gordon and Matt Smith, who I think have a lot to do with the new sound, especially in the second rock-driven half. They certainly add a lot to the live show, as well.

“Soldier’s Rock”-wise, it’s a pleasant whimsical way to come down from the intensity of “Infernal Fantasy” and “The Riverbed” before it, if you can get the mental image of killing your brother and putting your bloody arm around the shoulder of your lover as ambulance noises sound in the background. Maybe I’m taking this song too literally.

And “Bridle & Bit”, well, it’s amazing. I haven’t said anything about it yet since it’s a song on the double LP, so it’s a fitting afterthought here. It has this really spacey introduction before launching into a song sung from the perspective of the Milky Way. Our galaxy is asking the nearby Andromeda to spin and collide with it, which is a fantastic mental image. The vocals are sung by Soul Sisters Supreme Redux 2.0, a conglomeration of some really incredible singers. Might I suggest it’s worth getting the limited edition LP just to have this song?

It seems we’ve proven that we have a lot to say about this new Pallett album! Equal parts gentle and grand, it explores conflicts at once personal and universal. Only time will tell if it stands up to Heartland in my mind (the real test is how many times it begs to be played over the next few months), but I think it is certainly a masterpiece.

Elena’s rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

Elena’s top tracks: “Song for Five & Six,” “The Passions”


Michael’s rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

Michael’s top tracks: “I Am Not Afraid,” “Infernal Fantasy”


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