I played Owen’s last record back in round 36, nearly two years ago, and have been eagerly anticipating his new record for what, at times, felt like far too long (it’s been four and a half years). Owen’s own albums sadly suffer at the demands of his dayjob (scoring things – albums, films, whatever else – for other people [Arcade Fire; Spike Jonze; etc]), so a four-year-gap is sadly all-too frequent. A shame, because his own records are, to my mind at least, considerably more rewarding and enjoyable than those that he works on for other people.
Anyway, In Conflict is here now, and, as with all long waits, once it’s over the present dispels its memory pretty swiftly.
As with Heartland, In Conflict is a sumptuous sonic experience, full of immaculately rendered synthesizer arpeggios and orchestral flourishes and rich rhythmic pulses and tiny details. People still refer to Owen as ‘a violin player’ as if that’s the sum of him, but it’s actually a tiny piece of a complex jigsaw.
At times it reminds of many other things – people he’s worked with, spoken about being inspired by, and been compared to – but always subtly and eclectically. If I had any musicological skills I’m sure I could fathom a reason why, but there’s something about what Owen does that feels intrinsically more musical, and deeper, and more rewarding, than most if not all of those touch points.
A little poppier and more direct than Heartland, In Conflict sees Owen not hiding behind characters or concepts anymore, and instead singing more honestly and overtly about himself, his life, and his feelings. This isn’t necessarily a good thing – great art doesn’t need to be inspired by real trauma, catharsis, or events, as far as I’m concerned, although it can certainly help – but Owen manages it wonderfully. I never feel emotionally bludgeoned, pummelled, or unduly manipulated like I do by some overtly emotive and personal music; Owen’s music strokes my emotions rather than squeezing them or battering them.
Anyway, some great things about In Conflict:
• The way the bass and drums kick in in “In Conflict” (yes, I only phrased it that way to repeat the word ‘in’ three times in a row).
• The way the melody evolves effortlessly through “On A Path” until nothing else could possibly happen but the inevitable chorus (which whirled on a nearly endless, joyous loop through my head yesterday as I cycled 70 miles over Dartmoor, and never once bored me).
• The way “The Riverbed” sets the tension level at ‘breaking point’ from the moment it begins and somehow manages to maintain that remarkable pitch throughout its entire length without shattering into a billion pieces or exploding into bombast.
• The way he literally sings a phone number at the end of “The Secret Seven” and it sounds wonderful.
• The way there are literally dozens and dozens of other great things I could have chosen, and I’ve barely even taken in what he’s actually singing yet. (Even though I know he’d like me, and everyone else, to sit and listen to this with the lyrics in hand; hell, he even put the lyrics on the album cover.)
So yes, another Owen Pallett album, and it is, again, very good. Wonderful, even. He’s so good at music.
Ed listened: Nick leant me ‘Heartland’ a few weeks ago and after a few listenings I still find it hard to get into. Owen Pallett is clearly a talented composer, a violinist (my instrument) so what’s not to like? Well, I found the album inaccessible, a little bit impersonal, like he was watching a film of his own life that no-one else could see. Mind you, Nick did say that it rewarded repeated attention so maybe I just haven’t listened often enough. Happily though I enjoyed ‘In Conflict’ straight away. It seems more direct and passionate and listening to it again now I am really enjoying the stylish sophisticated sound he is getting from his synth/strings combo. Particularly good is the corner around ‘The Passions’, ‘The Sky Behind the Flag’ and ‘The Riverbed’. The first with the slightly creepy synth slides, the second personal, really beautiful with a gorgeous string ensemble ending, then 40 seconds later the strident, urgent opening to ‘The Riverbed’ kicks in and washes away all that subtlety. If Owen Pallett can be this good maybe I should give ‘Heartland’ another go…
Rob listened: I liked this a lot. I also struggled with ‘Heartland’. I appreciated the distinctive vision and it’s always a pleasure to hear something that seems to have genuine originality, to sound not quite like anything you’ve heard before, but I found the whole experience too cold. I’m sure that was a layer to be melted through with repeated listens, but I never found the time or the motivation to make those.
‘In Conflict’ however was immediately intriguing and engaging. I liked the sound palette, open and enticing, I liked the acute approach to song construction. I also liked the contrast with my first impressions of ‘Heartland’. I found this new record derivative, and that’s not a bad thing. It reminded me of the Beach Boys, Wild Beasts and other maestros of the sophisticated pop delight. Some of the sounds hit me as direct lifts from the Oneohtrix Point Never record. For me, Owen Pallett is playing with other people’s music here, and that’s producing interesting and rewarding new combinations and sounds. I like them.
Tom listened: I’m going to be really boring here and re-iterate Rob and Ed’s comments. I admired Heartland but found it impenetrable; I just couldn’t connect with the songs although it was easy to recognise the skill and vision of the man who created them.
In Conflict felt better right from the off. Warmer, more inclusive and hookier, I really enjoyed the listen and now it’s only the reediness of Pallett’s voice that I have a problem with; in much the same way that I have never managed to get to grips with Thom Yorke’s singing or Bernard Sumner’s. But the songs on In Conflict seemed so good on first listen that it would be churlish to pass it by without giving it another chance!