Owen Pallett - In Conflict

by Ethan Ranis Rating:7.5 Release Date:2014-05-11

Owen Pallett can’t seem to shake his sterling reputation as an arranger. His name is inevitably linked to the exquisite string-section parts he’s crafted for bands such as Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, and The Mountain Goats. What these descriptions leave out is Pallett’s excellent solo work, both live and on record. 

The man can work wonders with just a loop-pedal and his violin, though he’s recently been touring with a more standard four-piece rock setup. 2010’s Heartland was a milestone in his solo career, where he finally dropped his long-time stage moniker (Final Fantasy) and released an album under his own name. That album had a thrilling sense of scope (provided by a full orchestra playing on several tracks) as well as a brain-bending meta-concept which culminated in a literal 'death of the author' when its farmer-warrior protagonist murdered Pallett in the penultimate song. It was easily the best album of 2010 which no one talked about.

If one were to think of Heartland as Pallett’s proper debut, In Conflict logically slots into place as a textbook example of the sophomore slump. The album isn’t bad by any means, but it often feels like an attempt to get out of the ornate box Pallett had enclosed himself in with Heartland. While that album had a few electronic moments (‘Red Sun No. 5,’ ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’), almost every track on In Conflict features synthesizers of some kind or another, and they’re frequently dissonant. 

In some places the synths feel downright disruptive (as on ‘Song for Five and Six,’ where their arpeggiated patterns somehow feel as though they’re fighting with the strings). Generally the electronics work better when used for effect as opposed to the backbone of the song (as on the title track). 

Where Heartland had an intricate concept and plotline, In Conflict is deliberately much more freeform, though its lyrics are still often quite clever – for example, ‘The Secret Seven’s title is actually a reference to a phone number. Overall, the resulting album is significantly fussier, and even more of a grower than Pallett’s previous work. A good amount of it feels too studied to be properly livable.

Pallett apparently worked with several new collaborators on the album (including Brian Eno!), and though he also reunites with the Czech FILMharmonic Orchestra on some tracks, this is by and large a much more minimalist work. Several portions of the album feature only a few elements.  Pallett’s voice is front-and-center on most of the tracks, and while his delivery can sometimes seem a bit mannered, he also makes some choices which add significant character (such as the playful “Let me see that ass!” on the title track).

The problem is that some of the more experimental works on the album don’t have quite enough structure or songwriting to carry them, and as a result they feel leaden. Several of these are in the middle of the album, and they bring its progression to a shuddering halt (‘Chorale,’ The Passions,’ and ‘The Sky Behind The Flag’ specifically). While the last three tracks proper on the album (not including two brief instrumentals which seem placed rather arbitrarily at the album’s middle and end) have a bit more to them (‘The Riverbed,’ ‘Infernal Fantasy,’ and ‘Soldiers Rock’), they wind up feeling somehow fragmentary after the middle trio saps the album of its momentum.

The album has definite highlights, though nothing which quite approaches the dizzying pop high of ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ or the pathos of ‘E is for Estranged'. ‘The Secret Seven’ has an interesting live band feel which is a nice contrast from the electronic beats on most of the album.  ‘The Riverbed’ is similarly propulsive, and sounds almost arena-ready, though its sequencing on the album is a little strange, coming after the aforementioned soggy middle.

None of this is to diminish the effort Pallett clearly put into this album. The production’s generally immaculate (maybe even too clean in places), and the arrangements are once again detailed and inventive. Indeed, many of the choices he’s made are likely deliberate attempts to set a specific mood – the queasy synthesizers tie into the uncertainty displayed in the lyrics.

The problem is that the album as a whole isn’t much more than the sum of its parts. The standout tracks are interesting, but compared to Heartland, this feels inessential and somewhat disappointing.

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