Why Owen Pallett should win the Polaris Prize

Owen Pallett. Photo: Peter Juhl.
Owen Pallett, Photo: Peter Juhl.

by Elena Gritzan

Michael mentioned in his Arcade Fire essay this week that if the widely celebrated Montreal band were to take home the honour, they would be the first to do so for a second time. It would certainly be a bold statement to say that one artist has made two of the artistically best albums in eight years. As Michael pointed out, the Arcade Fire record is wonderfully complex (it’s actually my favourite thing that they’ve ever done), but I don’t think that it is enough to earn a double-Polaris honour.

Since Owen Pallett won the inaugural prize in 2006, he faces a similar hurdle. I’m here to say that yes, the Prize can and should go to a previous winner if they deserve it. But that person is Owen Pallett.

In Conflict is Pallett’s fourth album, and with it he reaches new artistic heights. The situational content is plucked from Pallett’s personal life, but even if you’ve never faced a similar problem, the emotional centre feels very real and familiar. Uncertainty over having children. Navigating a gender-dichotomized world as a person who doesn’t feel at ease placed in a box. Knowing that it’s time to move on to a new stage in your life, even if that means leaving behind the place you once thought you loved. It’s all heart-aching, conflicted inner core style emotions, making this an immensely relatable album.

Musically, it’s big. It’s ambitious. In adding back his former Les Mouches bandmates, Rob Gordon and Matt Smith, he has reached a scope and sound that is unprecedented for the violin-looping artist. This is heard most intensely in the driving power of “The Riverbed” or the drum scatters on “Infernal Fantasy”, though each song is imbued with a sense of drama.

Pallett combines this grandness with everything that has endeared his music to audiences in the past – imagery rooted in fantasy, clever lyrics whose meanings twist to reveal new layers each time you hear them, highly informed composition, a voice that soars with empathy and wit. He also throws in some old Pallett touchstones like referring to his name lyrically and vocal doubling. Essentially, everything that has worked for him before is thrown into this album, dialled up with a new intensity.

There’s some well-chosen collaborations in Brian Eno and the Soul Sisters Supreme that add essential moments: the former for a touch of ambient atmospherics and the latter delivering beautiful vocals from the perspective of the Milky Way galaxy.

But as wonderful as the music is here, it’s the keen sense of empathy that really makes it a winner. At the end of “The Secret Seven”, a song about weathering the rising waters of depression, he offers up his real phone number in case “your mother doesn’t answer.” A literal reflection of how Pallett helps people through providing relatable, strong, supportive music.

If anyone deserves to take home the Polaris for a second time, it’s certainly Owen Pallett.

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