Owen Pallett – In Conflict: Round 68, Nick’s choice

inconflictI 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!

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Owen Pallett – Heartland: Round 36, Nick’s choice

Heartland is another record I’ve been hankering after playing at DRC since we started, and my determination to play it is what inspired me, mischievously, to set us a theme of ‘Concept Albums’, aware of the horror which that phrase inspires in Tom and Rob.

Because that’s what Heartland is: set in a fictional land called Spectrum, it concerns a young, violent farmer called Lewis, who is plucked from the fields and anointed for some higher purpose, embarks on an adventure, realises his status as a character within a song, rebels against his god / author (who is, of course, called Owen), who he then kills, and, possibly, assumes control of his own destiny. Or something. Sonically, Heartland is like a techno-classical soundtrack to the most amazing all-night role-playing session ever, and it’s also amazingly, beautifully listenable. It’s one of my very favourite records of the last few years, and I played it for months and months almost as instrumental music, before I even started taking in the narrative conveyed in the lyrics.

I’m lucky enough to know Owen Pallett (in an online sense) from his posts on ILM and his Twitter. We talk online reasonably frequently and occasionally exchange emails too, so I thought I’d ask if he’d like to say a bit more about Heartland for the benefit of our little club. Being a gracious and amenable individual, he did just that. This is what he said.

Owen writes: When Heartland came out I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I made a concept record but then asked that people ignore that fact; all I said was “Lewis is a farmer living in the fictional world of Spectrum.” So I spent most of 2010 being asked to explain the plot…

There have been some very detailed explanations online that people have written, parsing out all the references and annotating everything. At first, I thought I might do it myself, a la Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, but then I thought that’d deny listeners the pleasure of figuring it out for themselves. And they did; check out the Alpentine website for some pretty concise breakdowns, and Nick Thornborrow, who wrote an amazingly insightful and beautifully illustrated comic that offered up his own wordless interpretation of the events.

Lewis and myself, just like Barthes and his beloved in “A Lover’s Discourse”, are the same thing. Written by the same person, so it’s a false dialogue. The final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, is meant to allude to this falseness of the narrative: Lewis is doing this Puck-style “give me your hands” monologue which is actually a critique of quantitative listening, of aggregation, the fact that numerical critique leaves no room for human shit, human dirt. It’s not a very Lewis-y monologue, but what has been? Our voices are entwined and inextricable. Then, my own voice, entering halfway through and saying “oh my god get me out of the house I’ve been working too long on this record”, becomes the more concrete statement, and the theatre disintegrates.

There’s meant to be a liminal quality to me and Lewis; the whole record could be entirely set in a fictional world, or it could be me singing about my own issues. The most liminal moments are where voices are overlaid: “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, and also “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”; I hoped that the sentiment “My homeland / I will not sing your praises here” would echo as being about both Spectrum and Canada, which has its own issues.

Lewis’ execution of Owen can be taken in many different ways. Is it a rehearsal of an in-real-life suicide/murder, like Mishima’s “Patriotism”? Is it symbolic of a cutting off of one’s dishonest narrative voice, the voice that lets a rhyming dictionary shape his meaning? Is it meant to be a commentary on in-real-life atheism, the physical execution of that which is said to govern you? Or a Boulez-style patricidal version of modernism? I thought about it from all these viewpoints and in the end, I just went with what sounded coolest, onomatopoeically. That’s kind of the burden of lyric-writing, you’ve got to make it sound good!

Musically, I wanted to try and create an arrangement language for this album that didn’t sound like Glass or Bach or Shostakovich or any other typically “Classical” composer. I didn’t fully end up succeeding; The Drift attempts the same thing and gets further than I did. But I tried it out.

So I basically tried to interpret various synthesis ideas and re-imagine them as orchestral music. “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” feature arrangements that are transcriptions of generative music patches I’d built in Max/MSP. “Flare Gun” and “Keep The Dog Quiet” both feature heavy noise gating and unnatural panning, which I wanted to sound more like Planningtorock’s “Have It All” than Prokofiev.

When I play “Lewis Takes Action” live I run my violin through a ring modulator at the end: for the recording, I transcribed that solo with all the resultant overtones reflected in the winds and strings. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” has the orchestra behaving like it’s controlled by an eight-step sequencer. “E Is For Estranged” begins with an approximation of ‘white noise’ with a comb filter running through it. I hoped that listeners would be like “oh, OMD, Cluster, I get it”, instead of “sounds like Gershwin!!”

I listen to albums with the lyric sheet in my hand. I work hard on my lyrics and I don’t like listening to records where the voice is mixed louder than everything else. If it seems like arrogance to think that listeners would sit down and decode this album like a puzzle, I’d just say that this is just the way I listen to albums, repeatedly, trying to figure them out. Conversely, I hope too that people could just put it on and enjoy it!

Tom Listened: I have owned Heartland for a few years now but, as I have it on CD, I have only ‘listened’ to it whilst driving (I don’t tend to listen to CDs in the house – why settle for second best when you can indulge in some prime vinyl?). It’s not really driving music! Whilst there are some great songs on Heartland that are enjoyable enough to let wash over you whilst your mind struggles to cope with the stresses of negotiating British roads, I now know that it requires proper, close attention to get the most out of it and that is something I haven’t really given it as yet. Listening at Record Club, it made a lot more sense but I still feel some way off a proper understanding of how the songs work, in both lyrical and musical capacities, and it’s the sort of record where my lack of comprehension bothers me. I sense it just needs more time and intend to give it that if I ever remember to bring the CD in from the car!

Graham Listened: Given my selection for this round, I probably have no right in commenting on the artistic merits of any of the other selections. With Heartland I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I haven’t begun to scratch at the surface of it all. Reading the lyrics alongside the first listen of an album was a throwback to my teens and something I haven’t done since. Like Tom said, this needs very close attention and should have just let it wash over me and then picked up the lyric sheet later, trying to immediately tie the story to the music was too much. When I put down the lyric sheets I began to enjoy the music far more and will need to approach a future listen far more carefully.

Rob listened: Nick’s not good at keeping secrets and I figured out fairly early what his choice was going to be. I listened to ‘Heartland’ a couple of times in the run-up to the DRC get-together, enough for it to start to become penetrable, for detail and texture to begin to emerge from the gently babbling brook. I enjoyed it yet more when we listened to it this evening.

It’s fascinating to read Owen’s thoughts – huge thanks to him for taking the time and to Nick for soliciting them. One of our recurrent discussion points is whether artists intend the depths and complexities that we as listeners subsequently find in their recordings. I guess the answer has to be ‘it depends’ but it’s pleasing to know that in some cases, and in this case in particular, incredible care and detailed preparation and planning has gone into the conceptual construction and lyrical execution of the finished work.